The New York City Police Department (NYPD) is back to arresting people for quality of life offenses like open containers and taking up two seats on empty subways, and already  public defenders are nostalgic for the slowdown. There are two sets of victims in the criminal justice system: victims of crimes, and victims of overzealous policing. During the slowdown that took place at the end of 2014 officers were still assisting victims of crimes. But there were many fewer victims of overzealous policing.

For the last two weeks or so of last year, NYPD stopped issuing summons and making arrests in quality of life offenses in an attempt to punish New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. In the wake of the protests against police violence, such as the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Mayor  de Blasio commented that as the parent of a Black son, he’s had to “train” his son to be “very careful” around the police.  Somehow, frank talk about the reality of race in influencing the perceptions of law enforcement officers offended the thin-skinned men in blue. In order to prove to critics that arresting poor people for public urination was what was keeping New Yorkers safe from violence, the NYPD stopped making arrests for public urination. And taking up two seats on the subway. And trespassing. And riding the subway without paying the fare.   Overall arrests during the last week of 2014 were 40|PERCENT| of what they were the last week of 2013. Summons and parking tickets were down 90|PERCENT|. And crime, actual crime? That went down too.

Matt Taibi of Rolling Stone wrote a superb analysis of this “surreal” work stoppage. Here are some observations from public defenders on the ground.

“How many people are in the system?”  I ask that question at the beginning of every 8-hour arraignment shift. I can gauge how busy my shift will be once I know how many people have been arrested and have been waiting in a cell for a day and a night to find out their charges and see a judge. During slowdown, the number of arrestees who’ve been cuffed, fingerprinted and spent a night in jail plummeted.

On an average day in Brooklyn, the answer used to be, “We got over a 100 in the system.”. The day after a big party weekend, like the 4th of July, the numbers might swell to 200 with people charged with drunk driving and firing celebratory gunshots into the air.

On this past  New Year’s Eve at 5:00 p.m. there were around 25 people in the system. The court closed at the unheard of early hour of 7:30 p.m., instead of staying open until 1 a.m. as scheduled. During the NYPD slowdown, there were  45 -60 people in the system at the start of an arraignment shifts. In the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan one day there were ten cases whereas there are normally forty. And one day the Manhattan arraignment courtroom closed at 10:30…in the morning. Our colleagues noticed that the misdemeanor cases that are coming through were the results of 911 calls. There were virtually no cases arising from car stops, stop and frisk or transit violations.

This means people saw the judge quicker. During the slowdown, we met people 18 hours after their arrest. This means people were finding out their charges and getting home and back to work much faster than people who are arrested now that the slowdown is over. 

As we learned from what happened as a result of the NYPD slowdown, we also learned a great deal from what did NOT happen.  Quality of life arrests and Broken Windows policing were not clogging the criminal courts.  There was no increase in more serious crime without Broken Windows and quality of life arrests.  But most importantly, the consequences of quality of life arrests harmed fewer people.

During the slowdown, Patrick Lynch, the head of the Police Officers’ Benevolent Association declared that officers were only making arrests when it was “absolutely necessary.” Telling our clients that their arrests weren’t “absolutely necessary,” rubs salt in the wounds that were caused by lost jobs, missed opportunities and the humiliation of spending a night in jail for jumping a subway turnstile.

Luke Schram of the Legal Aid Society contributed to this post.