Corey Johnson Runs Afoul of “Broken Windows” Policing

City Councilmember Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO

City Councilmember Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO

Out gay City Councilmember Corey Johnson, a Chelsea Democrat, was given a ticket March 25 for walking between moving subway cars — an infraction whether the train is in motion or not. Johnson paid his $75 ticket and had nothing but praise for the police after the incident, but the story ended up in the tabloids when police sources leaked it, characterizing the encounter as an important person trying to get out of a ticket. From the start, statements from Johnson’s office confirmed he had already paid the fine.

The Daily News broke the story, putting three reporters on it, citing an unnamed “police source” who said of Johnson, “He was making a big deal about it. He was saying this is what’s wrong with broken windows. He identified himself. He pulled out his cell and started making calls.”

The Associated Press wrote that Police Commissioner Bill Bratton “said Mr. Johnson… made a complaint about ‘what he thought was inappropriate behavior… on the part of several police officers’” and that there would be an investigation.

Chelsea City Council member ticketed for subway infraction and police commissioner chimes in, reporting that Johnson “tried to call NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton or Chief of Department James O’Neill,” said the commissioner responded, “It’s not something that I or Chief O’Neill would have interfered with. The officers stopped him for something that he readily admits did occur. And so there’s no issue around that.”

Johnson’s public statements sound as if he wants to put the incident behind him.

“The Council Member has the utmost respect for the men and women of the NYPD and looks forward to a continued partnership with them,” his chief of staff Erik Bottcher wrote in a statement.

Bratton also told, “There are two different stories. The Council member’s and the versions presented by our six police officers.” According to the website, the commissioner said the issue would be settled by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).

Bratton’s statements raise several issues — beyond the remarkable fact that the police commissioner waded into a matter of this nature. First, Johnson has never said he planned to take the matter to the CCRB, and a source close to him told Gay City News he has not and will not. The Council member, however, has declined to respond to specific questions about Bratton’s assertions nor is he providing his version of the interaction with the police, leaving unanswered the characterization by police sources that he tried to pull rank.

But another, more significant issue is raised by this incident: why are six officers needed to ticket a commuter for a minor infraction? That is deeply troubling to Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, which was a major force behind curtailing the abuse of stop and frisk and is now focused on ending the broken windows policing that results in tickets and, in some cases, arrests for minor infractions. The policy is a centerpiece of Bratton’s policing under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on ending stop and frisk, the use of which was already dramatically declining by the last year of Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Like stop and frisk, however, the impact of the broken windows policy falls disproportionately on youth of color.

“So many police resources are focused on sanctioning people — usually people of color — who engage in innocuous activity that many people do not consider dangerous,” Gangi said. “Is this effective? Do we need police officers with badges and guns ticketing people? If we decide it is an issue, why do we have police officers doing it? Why not MTA personnel?”

Gangi said the fines imposed under broken windows disproportionately impact youth of color, who may have difficulty paying their tickets. If they are later stopped for another minor infraction, he said, “they get arrested for victimless acts.”

“Corey Johnson is not going to suffer lifelong consequences for this,” Gangi said. “But young men of color get a criminal record that follows them around for the rest of their lives.”

Broken window tickets, he charged, are “driven by quotas” and have to stop. “Most people did not become police officers to arrest people in a park at night or riding a bike on the sidewalk. I’m not saying these things can’t be problematic. But a police officer should say, ‘Get the bike in the street.’”

Gangi goes to night court to witness young people getting arraigned and sees them come out either angry or shaking their heads in resignation.

“If they didn’t have antagonism for the police before, they have it now,” he said.

Johnson has been a critic of broken windows policing and a champion of police reform. But Gangi said most politicians from de Blasio on down have become much more cautious in their criticism of such enforcement techniques since the December murders of two police officers in Brooklyn by a mentally unstable man — who then shot and killed himself as other officers closed in on him. Those murders followed weeks of demonstrations calling for police reform.

Bratton challenges the notion that subway car-hopping ticketing is driven by quotas, citing a recent death of someone falling onto the tracks when moving between cars as justification for strict enforcement. (Full disclosure: I have over the years traveled between subway cars, and this newspaper’s editor acknowledges a recent ticket for traveling between cars while the subway was in a station.)

But Gangi is critical even of politicians with a long record of supporting police reform. He opposes Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s call for 1,000 new cops in this year’s budget.

“The NYPD is involved in racially discriminatory, wasteful activities every day because of broken windows,” he said. “Our job is to make broken windows anti-quota driven and make that a politically safe position for the mainstream.”

Editor's Note: The original version of this story mistakenly identified the Police Reform Organizing Project as a part of the Urban Justice Center, with which it is no longer affiliated.