Pink tickets. Cute and thin as tissue paper, these "quality of life" summonses can add up to a hefty headache. The Q regaled y'all with the story of my bicycling-clockwise-in-prospect-park story recently, and it's an example of the sort of silly-but-serious tack the NYPD takes on quality of life offenses. It's a pain to have to show up to civil court for these (and you MUST show up for them or you may actually do jail time), but you usually get off or slapped with a negligible fine. It's all about keeping people in line, and some might argue that it works extremely well. [For instance, public urination is WAY, WAY down since it's height in the late '80s, if that's a measure by which you gauge progress. New Yorkers For Peeless Streets (NYPS) folded years ago, it's board unanimously concluding that the practice had "shriveled" to only a "handful" of cases that could best be described as true emergencies. When they laid off its E.D. in 2002, the outgoing leader was rumored to have said "when you gotta go, you gotta go."]
Which leads us to the incredible true story of Lindsey Riddick of East 21st right here in Flatbush. He asserts, and it's apparently caught on tape, that cops told him he can't loiter in front of his own building, and when the 36-year-old Riddick was deemed uncooperative, he was given a wad of pink for his trouble. The full story here: Improbable Cause.
Riddick's story is a great reminder of just how tricky it is for the police to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Put yourself in Riddick's shoes for a moment - a father of two, he was required to show the cops he had a key to the apartment building and a key to his own apartment, and despite the fact his kids ran to see their daddy when he unlocked the door, the cops slapped him with citations. Of course, a more mature officer would have apologized and moved on, but let's be frank, not all cops have the wisdom of Solomon, and many are inexperienced or stressed or defensive and even accustomed to harassment for being unwanted in certain places. It may very well be that the cop in question had a bad day or was being harassed by people on the street even as he continued to press the loitering and disorderly conduct charge. BUT, and this is a BIG but, if you can manage to relate to the humiliation Riddick must have felt, in front of his very own family, perhaps you can step into a world where stop-and-frisk isn't just a policy about THEM. It's a policy about us, all of us, and how we want to pursue safety in the midst of cultural, racial and economic difference.
That loitering and other quality of life charges are leveled overwhelmingly at minorities will surprise no one. We are all painfully aware, anecdotally and statistically, that cops come down hard on brown-skinned people in particular, and that therefore majority-black neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by quality-of-life policies. And one must point out that those who decide what IS or ISN'T a quality of life crime are themselves typically whiter than than the general population. So while loitering might be considered disruptive and scary one block, another might call see it as run-of-the-mill, even welcome. And noise that one group might find intolerable, another might find festive and soothing. Excessive anything is probably unwelcome, but it's important I think to remember that one man's front hallway is another man's foyer, you know?
I may jest, but this is no joke. The soul of our neighborhood is at stake in the subtle distinction between how things change and how things stay the same. The Q regularly agitates for positive change in a neighborhood that sorely needs to recognize its own failings. But in my view, the best way to raise all boats is via a tide of consensus. If we pit own group against another, we fail the test of community and courage. When terrible things happen, like the senseless shooting of a bystander, or the negligent killing of a pedestrian, do we collectively go after the agreed-to cause, or do we blanket the neighborhood with general policies that throw out the baby with the bathwater? (such a gruesome metaphor, I know). For instance, in the case of the recent shooting on Clarkson it would be easy to decry all manner of kids hanging out in front of buildings when it's the thugs and gangs we're after. And it would be easy to fault Dollar Vans generally over criminally reckless driving as the culprit, when bad driving is in fact near-ubiquitous on the avenues and side-streets of our neighborhood. But there is probably a common-ground and common-sense way to deal with these problems. Time is of the essence, of course, but we need to find consensus wherever possible.
I leave you with this, below: the definition of loitering for most of the last century, as it reads in the NY penal code. Courts have struck parts of it down as unenforceable, including the snicker-inducing sections, and the very nature of "deviant" acts has been amended, but before we conduct a crusade to stop loitering generally, as some have suggested to the Q, it might be worth recognizing that we would in fact have to create a law that doesn't exist. It is "disorderly conduct" which most people have in mind when they seek the dispersal of unruly groups of suspected drug dealers and gangbangers. (yes, it's an ugly term, but it's the acknowledged descriptive word for young folks "acting" like, or being part of, actual street gangs.) In other words, to lawfully disperse small groups of people "hanging out," the folks must be engaging in behavior that suggests laws are being or will be broken. Lawful assembly is just that, and it's protected not only under law but expressly protected in the constitution. There is room for interpretation here, of course, and it may be helpful to get specific about how we intend to use the law to our advantage when trying to rid the blocks of unwanted activity. But we must be certain we're talking about the "bad guys," not the Lindsey Riddick's of the world. It's a tall order, BUT, if we start to trust each other as neighbors, and folks start talking and sharing what they know, we might be able to work with the cops and the D.A. as a community, rather than simply demand something be done. Maybe.
Again, here's the legalese for loitering, and I welcome your constructive comments. Any lawyers out there want to clarify?
NY PENAL LAW: 240.35
A person is guilty of loitering when he:1. Loiters, remains or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging; or2. Loiters or remains in a public place for the purpose of gambling with cards, dice or other gambling paraphernalia; or3. Loiters or remains in a public place for the purpose of engaging, or soliciting another person to engage, in oral sexual conduct, anal sexual conduct, or other sexual behavior of a deviate nature; or4. Being masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration, loiters, remains or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked or disguised, or knowingly permits or aids persons so masked or disguised to congregate in a public place; except that such conduct is not unlawful when it occurs in connection with a masquerade party or like entertainment if, when such entertainment is held in a city which has promulgated regulations in connection with such affairs, permission is first obtained from the police or other appropriate authorities; or5. Loiters or remains in or about school grounds, a college or university building or grounds or a children's overnight camp as defined in section one thousand three hundred ninety-two of the public health law or a summer day camp as defined in section one thousand three hundred ninety two of the public health law, or loiters, remains in or enters a school bus as defined in section one hundred forty-two of the vehicle and traffic law, not having any reason or relationship involving custody of or responsibility for a pupil or student, or any other specific, legitimate reason for being there, and not having written permission from anyone authorized to grant the same or loiters or remains in or about such children's overnight camp or summer day camp in violation of conspicuously posted rules or regulations governing entry and use thereof; or6. Loiters or remains in any transportation facility, unless specifically authorized to do so, for the purpose of soliciting or engaging in any business, trade or commercial transactions involving the sale of merchandise or services, or for the purpose of entertaining persons by singing, dancing or playing any musical instrument; or7. Loiters or remains in any transportation facility, or is found sleeping therein, and is unable to give a satisfactory explanation of his presence.Loitering is a violation.