In New York, A Rogue Wave Of Criminal Injustice

June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's declaration of a "war on drugs" — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world's largest incarcerator. Throughout the month, check back daily for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.

"Constructive wave interference" describes the phenomena of two different ocean swells coming together and reinforcing each other, leading to the formation of enormous "rogue waves" that capsize even the largest ships.

It is a fitting metaphor to describe the combined effect of two policies that have dominated urban America's approach to criminal justice in the past several decades — the "war on drugs" and "Broken Windows" policing. Together, their mutually reinforcing effects have led to mass incarceration, widespread civil rights abuses, and severe and disproportionate consequences for America's youth, with few public safety benefits. New York City sits at the confluence of these costly and punitive approaches. By all indications, many of the city's residents are drowning.

In 1982, an article in Atlantic Monthly magazine introduced a new theory of law enforcement, known as "Broken Windows" policing. The proponents of Broken Windows policing hypothesized that vigorous enforcement of low-level petty offenses would lead to a reduction in more serious crime. Championed at the national and local level, Broken Windows policing has been enthusiastically embraced by law enforcement throughout the United States, imposing tremendous costs on communities despite a lack of evidence that this approach has contributed to declining crime rates. The New York City Police Department has developed and marketed its own aggressive brand of Broken Windows law enforcement, characterized by driving up arrest numbers at any cost and racially biased "stop-and-frisk" practices where officers stop, question and even search innocent people for no reason at all. In 2010 alone, NYPD officers made over half a million of these suspicionless — and unconstitutional — stops, 85 percent of which targeted people of color. Guns — the ostensible reason for the stop-and-frisk regime — were found in less than 0.2 percent of those stops. Instead, when NYPD officers find anything at all, it is often just a small amount of marijuana.

Since 2002, the NYPD has made more than 350,000 arrests for low-level marijuana offenses, and the numbers continue to climb annually. Eighty-six percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City are black or Latino, even though these groups make up only a quarter of the city's population and government surveys of people 18 to 25 consistently show that young whites use marijuana more often than young blacks and Latinos. In addition to jail time, these marijuana arrests can result in permanent criminal records, loss of student financial aid, loss of child custody, loss of public housing, deportation and a host of other severe collateral consequences.

In 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) issued a report documenting the NYPD's "marijuana arrest crusade" and the civil rights abuses that pervade these arrests. The fact that NYPD officers jail so many New Yorkers for minor pot possession with such astonishing frequency, despite the fact that almost 35 years ago the New York Legislature reduced the offense from a criminal offense to a violation, speaks to the corrosive effects of "zero-tolerance" approaches that run roughshod over basic constitutional rights and may have little, if anything, to do with improving public safety.

Change is long overdue.

Reversing course on these decades-old policies will require sustained and reform efforts. Nationally, such efforts are being spearheaded by the ACLU's Safe and Fair campaign. In New York, progress is being made in the courts, in the legislature, and on the streets. In addition to the NYCLU's 2007 report on the marijuana arrest crusade, the NYCLU recently supported legislation that, if enacted, would significantly curtail NYPD officers' ability to haul New Yorkers off to jail for possessing a small amounts of marijuana, finally bringing the NYPD's conduct in line with the Legislature's intent.

The NYCLU also works to empower New Yorkers with an understanding of basic constitutional rights when they are stopped by NYPD officers. In addition, the NYCLU has sued to obtain information about the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, revealing its disproportionate effects on young black and brown New Yorkers and negligible public safety benefits. Federal courts are currently considering a lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights seeking to put an end to the NYPD's aggressive stop-and-frisk policies on the street, and NYCLU has filed a lawsuit seeking to end a similar practice in taxi cabs.

The time is right for a fundamental shift in our approach to criminal justice issues in America. We must move away from punitive and costly approaches, and toward effective and fair solutions. Ending the "war on drugs" and the NYPD's marijuana arrest crusade will be a tremendous start.

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Craig Fox

The NY practice of "raids" on gay bars in alien to me. TO my knowledge it does not exist in most states. How does this still exist in NY? Why hasn't a civil rights suit stopped this?

9_Tray Cowboy

This very same tactic is in use now in the city of Chicago. Brought on by a new police superintendent that hails from the N.Y. area. There will soon be a very costly civil law suit that probably won't matter in the grand scheme of things. Because the bottom line is, the officer on the street knows when his/ her actions are unconstitutional. But for some reason, when people from certain races, genders and cultures are involved, they just aren't treated with any respect and in most cases even like humans. And they do it with full consent from P.D. brass. Tie that in with support from over-zealous prosecutors, and you now know why the jails are so overcrowded! Problem is, these arrest and records stay with you, for the rest of your natural life so these people can further their careers! Now run and tell that!!!


I’ve been sitting and contemplating things I never understood. I saw the wall came down in Berlin and had hope. We saw the end of cold in Russia and felt the warm breeze of prosperity. Yeh for our side we proclaimed as Neil took one giant step. Police were our friends. The government was for the people. Children were innocent. But those were different times. We’re losing touch.

Then I saw hope reel and stagger from a mighty blow delivered in Memphis. I watched the peoples face and saw their teardrops fall when the shot rang out from Dallas. American cities laid to waste are what I saw then, Detroit, Memphis, Philly, Chicago, Dallas. It got real hot in Springfield. I think this was the beginning of the end for our children. Gangs sprang up and children became feared. Now the children are exploited, bought and sold, starved, ravaged, raped and tossed aside like kitchen garbage. The children do not trust the police or me. Wisely so. Us religion seeking, freedom loving Americans don’t have the heart to finish what we started.

I passed through a low-lying pocket of fear today. It was rolling down the road and looked like the hapless ones. You know, the ones that our country doesn’t know any more. They were the ones that never had a snowball’s chance in hell of securing the so-called American dream. They were young and mostly of color and doomed from birth to a life of poverty, crime, drugs and prison. So what’s the frequency Kenneth, because here they come?

Helicopters invade our back yards looking for marijuana. Federal agents grope us at the airports. Big dogs intimidate us at roadblocks. We are stopped and searched without warrants. People of color are locked up 4 to 1. for marijuana. We are all afraid of the police. We are profiled, arrested, locked up, beaten and sometimes killed in the name of the law. My child hood friend put a shotgun to his head and never told me goodbye. He was afraid of the IRS.

Our two party system of Govt. was intended to work on compromise, but that went the way of common courtesy. Your greed will follow you to your grave homie. We are not punished for our sins but by them. Enjoy your rib eye and stay in touch.

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