For the past two weeks, the NYPD has drastically scaled back law enforcement. Criminal summonses and traffic tickets are down more than 90 percent from this time last year. In many precincts, the weekly tally of criminal infractions was near zero. Union leaders deny an organized movement. But the drop is viewed by many as a protest against Mayor Bill de Blasio and his perceived lack of support for police.
This apparent effort is costing the city a lot of money. Court, criminal and administrative fines contribute some $800 million to the city’s annual budget, according the New York Office of Management and Budget’s projections. To put that in perspective, the cigarette tax will bring in about $52 million a year; hotel taxes generate roughly $547 million; and commercial rent tax will supply $720 million.
Parking tickets alone (the single largest revenue-generating fine) bring in an average of $10.5 million a week. Last year, during New Years’ week, the NYPD handed out more than 16,000 parking tickets. This year, it distributed fewer than 2,000, a 93 percent drop-off.
Mayor de Blasio’s most recent budget was about $75 billion. So this protest won’t come close to bankrupting the city. Even though New York’s budget must be balanced by law, the expected surplus for the current fiscal year is enough to cover the cost of an entire year of the NYPD’s newfound minimalist approach to policing.
Still, it’s a good reminder that too often, cities rely on parking and traffic tickets for their revenue. According to The Washington Post, some communities in Missouri draw as much as 30 percent of their revenue from these sources. These fines fall disproportionately on poor, non-white people. This can breed antagonism and antipathy in communities of color that will further strain police-community relations.
Intended or not, the work stoppage will allow money to stay in the pockets of many New Yorkers who will use it better than the city could. This is particularly true for the poor and others who survive paycheck to paycheck in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Petty fines can devastate a tight budget when every cent counts, and municipalities should stop depending on — and thus incentivizing the collection of — fines to augment their budgets.
Whether the NYPD is trying to punish the de Blasio administration or demonstrate how vital these aspects of their day-to-day work are, their aim is off. Their refusal to bother, fine and arrest thousands of people has not led to a giant spike in violent crime thus far (though robberies were up during the second week of reduced enforcement, compared to last year), given an admittedly small sample size. Even if some crimes do increase during this stoppage, the argument that aggressive levels of enforcement were absolutely necessary is less believable now than it was before de Blasio took office.
Let’s hope police departments learn from this NYPD example.