Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

The Criminalization of Everyday Life

Posted in civil rights, law, police state by allisonkilkenny on March 24, 2009

City Limits, Robert Neuwirth

police_stateI spent 24 hours in the slammer the other day. My crime? Well, the police couldn’t tell me when they locked me up. The prosecutor and judge couldn’t either, when I was arraigned the following day. I found out for myself when I researched the matter a few days after being released: I had been cited for walking my dog off the leash – once, six years ago.

Welcome to the ugly underside of the zero-tolerance era, where insignificant rule violations get inflated into criminal infractions. Here’s how it worked with me: a gaggle of transit cops stopped me after they saw me walk between two subway cars on my way to work. This, they told me, was against the rules. They asked for ID and typed my name into a hand-held computer. Up came that old citation that I didn’t know about and they couldn’t tell me about. I was immediately handcuffed and brought to the precinct. There, I waited in a holding cell, then was fingerprinted (post-CSI memo: they now take the fingers, the thumbs, the palms, and the sides of both hands) and had the contents of my shoulder bag inventoried. I could hardly believe it: I was being arrested without ever having committed a crime.
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I was held overnight in the Midtown North Precinct lock-up (shoelaces and belt confiscated, meals courtesy of the McDonald’s dollar menu). In the morning, my fellow convicts and I were led, chain-gang style, to the Manhattan Community Court next door. The judge there dismissed the charge against me – because no one ever does time for that kind of crime. A few days later, at Brooklyn’s central court, my warrant was lifted for “time served” – again because no one is ever locked up for breaking the leash law.

If the cops had simply written me a ticket, I would have paid it, and I would have also had to pay to vacate my outstanding warrant. But by cuffing me and holding me overnight, the city spent quite a bit of money (it took two police officers approximately six hours each just to arrest and process me), while the fines assessed against me were rescinded.

While I was inside, I was astounded by the kinds of things that take up police and court time. A couple of people nabbed for being in various parks after dark. One of them was walking his dog. Two young men accused of riding their bicycles on the sidewalk. Three people arrested for sleeping in a subway station. My roommate in the lock-up was an articulate and self-aware 60-year-old whose sin was that he bought a bottle of booze and had taken a swig on the street. In the cell next to us: two costumed Mariachis busted for busking on the subway. They were repeat offenders. Their weapons: a guitar and an accordion.

With zero tolerance, we have finally done it: We have criminalized everyday life. After all, in the course of their life people sometimes ride their bikes on the sidewalks. And once upon a time not too long ago, it was normal to go into the parks after dark. My friends and I did all the time, particularly if we had time to kill before or after the opera, the symphony, or a jazz or rock concert. We walked brazenly between subway cars. Some of us even – horror of horrors! – played music on the street or in the subway without a license. And, though my parents would not be happy to know it even now, we sometimes drank beer in public – making sure, in an important but legally meaningless gesture, that the bottle was in a paper bag. If I did any of this on a regular basis today, I’d probably be considered a behavioral recidivist and sent to Riker’s Island.

I can laugh away my time in a cell—my life suddenly turned into an update of “Alice’s Restaurant.” But I get angry when I think of kids in their teens or 20s being treated the way I was. I’m not against hard time for criminal, violent or anti-social behavior. But slapping young people behind bars and giving them an arrest record simply because the normal things they do are trivial rule violations is not only wasteful, it’s downright criminal.

– Robert Neuwirth

Robert Neuwirth, a longtime contributor to City Limits, is the author of “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World,” and is at work on a new book about the global reach of the informal economy.

Editor’s note: The Giuliani administration highlighted its increase of “quality of life” summonses, but statistics from the annual Mayor’s Management Report indicate that the Bloomberg administration has been just as zealous. The number of such summonses under Giuliani reached its height in fiscal 2001, hitting 523,000. After a dip in 2002, the number of “quality of life” summonses rose under Mayor Bloomberg to more than 700,000 in fiscal 2004. They’ve declined since then to 527,000 in fiscal 2008—still higher than under the previous mayor. The city’s courts, meanwhile, have registered an uptick in the number of people getting arraigned on minor charges: In 2007, the last year for which the court system published statistics, the number of arraignments for infractions and violations was the highest in 10 years – 20 percent greater than the previous year.

25 Responses

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  1. chris gardiner said, on March 25, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Zero tolerance is a mechanism for removing power from judges.
    Life is impossible without judgement. Even a stupid judge is better than no judge.
    Zero tolerance is a deterant. If a truck hits you you die. That is zero tolerance. However it does not stop people being hit by trucks.
    Judges should reprimand police for wasting taxpayers time and money.
    That is a judgement.

  2. Bill said, on March 25, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Welcome to the wonderful world of ” The Patriot Act “!!!!

  3. psychscribe said, on March 25, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    This is truly disgusting and such a travesty of “law and order”. What a waste of taxpayer’s money and police time processing such “criminals” as yourself when there are pedophiles and rapists and violent perpetrators slithering around the streets…so sorry to hear of your experience!

  4. Marianne said, on March 25, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    I would hate to see what would happen if you did anything worse, like yielding, without coming to a complete stop, at a stop sign.

    Sorry to hear you went through that.

  5. Jared connell said, on March 25, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    I’m sorry to hear about this horrible tale. And the biggest shame is that all that time and money spent detaining you could have been saved by giving you a ticket and sending you on your way. Heck, you would have actually given them some revenue with a ticket. What an injustice!

  6. Kellene said, on March 25, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    What a prime example of how broken the judicial system has become. Talk about a total waste of taxpayers money.

  7. […] Allison Kilkenny och Yelah – de har en klart intressant syn på frågan. Bloggar: polisen, brott, […]

  8. bellfleur said, on March 25, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    This is just UNBELIEVABLE. What do you think the rest of us should be doing to fight this from continuing or even escalating? Is there anything that we could do to help you at this point?

  9. Just another brick in the wall said, on March 25, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    People like Martin and Malcom were tell youz about this kind of thing, what 40 years ago? Now that this practice has been bred and moving into your life you feel outraged. Get used to it buddy. It too late to turn back now, should have listened when we told you what road we were going down.

  10. allisonkilkenny said, on March 26, 2009 at 2:03 am

    1. I don’t know the author, but it’s presumptuous to believe that he didn’t care when it was happening in the lives of African-Americans. I would wager that he very much cares any time civil rights are trampled.
    2. Fractioning the liberal party doesn’t help anyone. It’s not cool when it happens to black people, just like it’s not cool when it happens to white people. This isn’t a competition.
    3. It’s not too late. That kind of talk is nihilistic and lazy.

  11. Workin' Tommy C said, on March 26, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Used to be, folks were treated as if they had sense. There were INDIVIDUAL rights that would come into play regarding each case (or should have been). People are now herded like cattle and that requires putting everyone in the “stupid” category. I think that this attitude has been promoted by elitists who want to stay in power.

    Lawsuits over the years have put fear into people who see every bit of personal judgement and common sense used in their job or daily life subjecting the individual to liability. This fear leads to individuals, especially teachers and others in low-level bureaucracies (such as police officers) frequently unwilling to use their common sense and good judgement in enforcing the rules. These people, fearful of a lawsuit, love rules and laws that give them absolutely no choice in what they have to do.

    “Zero tolerance” has been successfully promoted over the years to a public that has been fatigued by the failures of a judicial system that seems to constantly let violent criminals loose to commit more crimes when other non-violent felons are kept in. Bureaucrats and prison administrations love compliant criminals–much easier to deal with. They’re afraid of the dangerous ones, too.

    Furthermore, zero tolerance’s method of functioning does have a great appeal to those with an obsessive-compulsive need for order. EVERYTHING must be digital–“zero” or “one”/”yes” or “no.” The RULES (law) must be draconian and enforced leaving no room for discernment. Vindictive laws that are “guaranteed” to get the bad guy appeal to those who are unwilling to risk a little anarchy that may result from giving the benefit of a doubt, or presumption of innocence, to the individual citizen.

    Zero tolerance also appeals to those seeking equal outcomes. This is very apparent in the social experiments institutions (the pubic school systems). The vindictive nature of the zero-tolerance laws plays an important role as a relief valve in alleviating the “social guilt” felt by those in power at the schools who must at times enforce rules against those who are poor and come from bad home environments. Zero tolerance places the affluent kid with a GI Joe plastic M16 into the same category as the ghetto kid who brought his uncle’s loaded .22 caliber pistol to school. The threshold for violation is set so low that it entraps those who would never have otherwise gotten into trouble and pushes them down into the same behavioral pool. This probably encourages future misbehavior for many since at least some of the fear of punishment would have been removed through their simply becoming familiar with the process.

    Zero tolerance seeks to break the wills of those who seek to be well-behaved and who would have never come under the thumb of the system and come to fear its pretension of omnipotence. Under such tactics many kids caught up in such a widespread net and assumption of guilt would, I think, be more likely to become sycophantically devoted to the establishment rather than standing for principles. Essentially, zero-tolerance is a way to bully good, normally law-abiding people into supporting a bad system.

    The tearing down of those in society who are considered “good” and who will probably be self-sufficient is important to those seeking government to intervene at every possible level so that citizens become dependent on government rather than the other way around. Self-sufficient, independently minded citizens are dangerous to those politicians. It is much better for them to set up government as the parent who both punishes and forgives, reminding them constantly that big mother is in charge and deserves your votes.

  12. Top Posts « said, on March 26, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    […] The Criminalization of Everyday Life City Limits, Robert Neuwirth I spent 24 hours in the slammer the other day. My crime? Well, the police couldn’t tell […] […]

  13. Ian Campbell said, on March 26, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    For those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s _The Tipping Point_, this is an example of the crime reduction techniques applied in 1984 NYC. In cracking down on minor crimes, law enforcement creates an environment that discourages major crime. For those who have not read the book,

    These two articles provide an overview of the theory, and its scientific backing. It is this theory that justifies the disproportionate allocation of authority to our police force. We sacrifice essential liberty to obtain supposed safety. Perhaps without personal liberties, we will all be safe. After all, we can trust law enforcement not to abuse their power, right?

  14. allisonkilkenny said, on March 27, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Unfortunately, it’s difficult to detect sarcasm on the Internets.

    For the sake of my last nerve, I’m going to assume you’re kidding.

  15. Ian Campbell said, on March 27, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Yup, it’s sarcasm. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Enough people really think that way that we can’t be sure.

  16. allisonkilkenny said, on March 27, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Oh, thank God. And touche’, sir. Touche’.

  17. Samethia said, on March 28, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    About 8 or 9 years ago, my mom and I were driving home one night, and she got pulled over by a cop. My mom is a typical, normal kind of person. Her worst broken law is probably speeding, and then only occasionally, late at night, when there’s no one else on the road. This cop pulled her over and asked her if she knew there was a warrant out for her arrest, at which point she started freaking out a little bit. He told her the only reason he wasn’t taking her in was because she had me (a child, around 11 at the time) in the car. Her great offense, the one that almost got her arrested? She had two overdue library books.

  18. Mobius said, on March 28, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    Not surprising. I believe I would’ve opted to decline to identify myself. We’re ALL better off OFF the grid right now.

  19. allisonkilkenny said, on March 28, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Ugh, so gross. Gotta love when some little man gets the slightest whiff of power, completely freaks out, and starts using it as leverage over any helpless person he encounters.

  20. allisonkilkenny said, on March 28, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Agreed. This borders the conspiratorial, but I have a friend, who refuses to get any new-model phone with a GPS-tracking system precisely because he wants to remain “off the grid.” Sure, he’s stuck on a Nokia model from the 90s, but he seems pretty happy. 🙂

  21. Fen Alankus said, on March 30, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I am 23. Last year, on St. Pattys day, I was pulled over for speeding. First speeding ticket ever. They arrested me. Didn’t tell me why. Didn’t read me any rights. Yelled at me. Treated me like a criminal. They took all of my 10 fingerprints and my palm prints. Eventually, hours later, an officer told me that they thought it was because I didn’t attend Jury Duty. I had never received a letter summoning me to Jury Duty. I was terrified and confused. When I was told to strip naked to put on the blue outfit, I felt violated. I told them I didn’t feel comfortable stripping and a man came in and screamed in my face. A woman helped me undress as I was nearly inconsolable at this point. They put me in a holding cell by myself at county prison. I stayed there 24 hours. I was released ONLY because my mom paid a large chunk of money (that she didn’t have to begin with) for a lawyer to get me out. Turns out, the Jury Duty letter went to my old address and the mail hadn’t been forwarded. A woman came in after I was in the cell overnight to tell me that nobody knew how long I’d be in jail, but she’d try to find out. This experience changed my life. I felt injustice. I lived it.

  22. thenakedlistener said, on March 30, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Try exporting zero tolerance to other countries. Read about Brian Howes’ plight, a Briton facing illegal (and stupid) extradition to the USA for breaking no laws:

    If you tolerate this, your children will be next.

  23. Khataroo said, on March 30, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Yikes, scared of that. That is totally dead and I am sorry you had to go through that even though what you said was informative to me. I really hope that this country pulls itself up by the bootstraps and makes some major adjustment and does the right thing. I think I am dreaming.

  24. gtcngo said, on April 4, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    I find this blog very interesting. I don’t know if you wrote on this yet, but what are your thoughts on the criminalization of mass culture or youth culture. Culture has always been divided into high and low culture but it seems to me that mass culture is consider low culture just because it is easily attained. Call me a nut but I don’t see how culture should be define by its accessibility.

    And way I would like to exchange blog rolls with you if your willing, but if not keep up the good work

  25. jean said, on April 8, 2009 at 1:00 am

    like anything else in this city; its only when “middle-class” folk start to experience the same treatment as working folk have always experienced that “outrage” becomes fashionable. the good news is that pretty soon, when the people that give this city its character have all been driven out of the city, the outrage will end.

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