By David Brand
In Queens Criminal Court, most of the judges, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys are white. District Attorney Richard A. Brown is white. So are the three candidates vying to replace him — Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilmember Rory Lancman and retired Judge Gregory Lasak.
The vast majority of defendants are not.
On July 31, for example, the justice system watchdog Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) monitored arraignments at Queens County Criminal Court and reported that 25 of 27 defendants — more than 92 percent — were people of color.
PROP’s court watchers routinely report that rates of defendants of color exceed 90 percent in Queens and across the city. Yet, white residents account for nearly half of the overall population of the Queens.
Criminal justice reformers blame the racial disparities among defendants, in part, on over-policing — the notion that police departments prioritize enforcement and concentrate too many officers in communities of color.
“Over-policing is based on the concept of ‘broken windows,’ the premise that if you deploy officers in areas where the most crime is committed, they will prevent more crimes,” said Legal Aid staff attorney Anthony Posada.
“But if you send more officers with a directive to produce more arrests, produce more summonses, they will,” Posada continued. “And then you’re left with a ‘tale of two cities,’ where crimes occur but they aren’t criminalized in white and wealthy communities” like they are in low-income communities of color.
Black and Latino New Yorkers account for a disproportionate number of arrests for virtually all low-level offenses, including fare evasion and marijuana possession.
In the case of misdemeanor criminal mischief, black New Yorkers account for 40.4 percent of all arrests while Hispanic New Yorkers account for 34 percent, according to the NYPD’s 2017 year-end enforcement report. Black New Yorkers make up less than 25 percent of the city’s population while Hispanic New Yorkers make up about 29 percent of the city’s total population, according to the 2017 U.S. Census American Community Survey.
Posada said prosecutors have a major role to play in influencing police priorities and addressing those disparities.
“The role of prosecutors is huge because they are the gatekeepers of what to charge and how to charge,” Posada said, adding that since arrests are concentrated “in a handful of communities, prosecutors are in a position to disrupt that pattern or examine that pattern … But when none of that happens they’re fueling the mass criminal state that we’re in.”
Over-policing also explicitly affects the political power and influence of entire communities, experts say.
A 2010 paper by political scientists Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman —cited in a November City Limits “CityViews” op-ed — reports that seven community districts in New York City accounted for roughly three-quarters of the entire state’s prison population. The neighborhoods include South Jamaica along with the Lower East Side, the South Bronx, Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York.
Those same neighborhoods had some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the city, in part because people who are removed from the community and put in jail or who are on parole cannot vote, the authors of the op-ed said.
For several years, advocates like Shaun King, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Queens Neighborhoods United and various Queens council members including Daniel Dromm and Francisco Moya have called for police reforms related to enforcement of low-level offenses.
“How is it that whites use and sell marijuana at similar rates to blacks and Latinos but nine out of 10 people arrested for marijuana possession are black or brown?” Council Member Francisco Moya told the Eagle in response to a report on the vast racial disparities in marijuana arrests. “Because marijuana policies are selectively enforced — which is to say, because of an unjust system that criminalizes people of color for the same behavior that white people commit with relative impunity.”
Considering the emphasis on criminal justice reform among Queens community groups and leaders, the Eagle asked each current DA candidate what they think of the term over-policing and how they would influence arrest disparities in communities of color.
Katz did not provide comment, but her campaign team referred questions on “over-policing” to her policy book which they said “outlines some of the positions she has taken to address racial disparities in arrests and indictments.”
In terms of influencing enforcement priorities, Katz specifically said she will end prosecution of low-level marijuana arrests, something the current Queens DA Richard A. Brown has refused to do, even as his peers in Manhattan and Brooklyn have stopped prosecuting most marijuana offenses. Brown, who has served as DA since 1991, has not ruled out a bid for re-election in 2019.
Under the subheading, “Making the DA a partner for justice,” Katz summarizes her general philosophy.
“Safety doesn’t come from a jail cell, it comes from partnering with the community to reduce crime before it happens,” the policy book reads. “It comes from addressing the real issues of police-community conflict and opening lines of communication to make crime reduction everyone’s responsibility.”
Lasak did not explicitly mention the term “over-policing” or refer to communities of color in his response to the Eagle. He instead called for better relations among police and communities in general and an end to enforcement practices that disproportionately affect Queens residents of color.
"I believe we need to improve relations between police and community and that we need to change the law enforcement culture in Queens County — by ending cash bail on low-level, non-violent offenses, by declining to prosecute some of those offenses and diverting others where appropriate,” Lasak said. “As the only candidate in this race with the experience to do the job on day one, I'm the only candidate who can effectively make those changes."
Of the three DA candidates, Lancman has been the most outspoken opponent of “over-policing.” At the same time, he has advocated for the addition of more NYPD officers.
In 2015, Lancman told the Observer that support for the NYPD and campaigns for police reform are not mutually exclusive. As an example, Lancman mentioned his support for a City Council initiative to add 1,000 new cops in the city’s 2015 budget.
“The general public shouldn’t forget that every single council member has a close working and often personal relationship with the police precincts in our respective districts — the commanding officers, community affairs officers, special operations officers, etc,” he told the Observer.
As chair of the City Council Committee on the Justice System, Lancman has sued the city and NYPD to release comprehensive fare evasion arrest data and sponsored a bill to end the use of chokeholds by police, but his support for more cops continues to rankle many criminal justice reformers in Queens, several people told the Eagle.
“That’s going to follow him,” Posada said.
Nevertheless, Lancman has made reform a central part of his campaign.
"Communities of color, in particular, are vastly over-policed, the first gear in the New Jim Crow machine, whereby an extraordinary number of people of color get criminal records early in life for relatively minor offenses that inhibit their ability to get an education, a job, and housing forever,” Lancman wrote in an email. “In communities of color, the police overuse and misuse tactics like ‘stop-and-frisk,’ arrest people for minor offenses that are barely policed at all in white communities, resort to use of force much quicker and with deadlier effect, and are called upon to solve social problems like poverty and addiction that shouldn't be in the criminal justice system at all.
Lancman said prosecutors have a profound influence on police priorities. DAs can either exacerbate or limit aggressive policing in communities of color, he said.
"Too often, prosecutors are willing, if not eager, participants in this overcriminalization of people of color,” Lancman said. “They abdicate their responsibility as their jurisdiction's chief law enforcement officer to ensure than the criminal justice system is fair, accountable, and focused on what really threatens the public's safety.”
“As I like to say, ‘The police can only police what prosecutors are willing to prosecute,’” he continued. “Beyond that, prosecutors must be more than merely the processors of the cases that the police bring them. They must direct the police toward prioritizing real public safety threats over maintaining ‘control’ over communities of color.”