This week, the New York World published an article analyzing the geographical distribution of summonses issued by the NYPD, along with a map showing the distribution of summonses by precinct. (You can download the underlying data here.) We found that police issued the majority of summonses in the 32 precincts with populations 80 percent nonwhite or higher, raising questions about whether summonses are an element of a quota system that leads to discrimination or a necessary tool for officers policing the streets.
We had the idea for the story in July when the editorial pages of the city’s tabloid newspapers heated up over the decision of Brooklyn judge Noach Dear, who dismissed a summons for public drinking and accused the NYPD of racial bias when giving pink slips for open containers of alcohol in the street. Though summonses for minor violations seem innocuous, they can carry hefty penalties like increased fines and even warrants and police records. Here was a judge who had publicly accused the NYPD of giving them out to minorities more than whites.
The seed of this story was a question: Did data exist that could offer a more objective view into the issue of NYPD summonses and race than was being offered in impassioned and political editorials?
We soon found out that very few people knew where to find such data or if it even existed. We were told that the NYPD tracked such data but did not make it publicly available. Various lawyers and public advocates pointed us to the City Council, which requires quarterly reports on summonses from the NYPD, but these reports merely showed the total number of summonses for each precinct and didn’t break the information down by type or demographics.
So we turned to the Criminal Court of the City of New York. Each year, the court issues an annual report that contains the total number of summonses issued by all city agencies. As it turned out, the court does not track demographic information on who was issued summonses, but we were able to request data on the most popular types of pink slips for every precinct in 2011.
Once we had the data it was a matter of combining the spreadsheets for each borough into one citywide worksheet, and running simple queries that revealed the unusual outliers, for example, hundreds more unreasonable noise violations in Mott Haven than any other precinct in the city, or just 76 summonses all year for Park Slope. We also added demographic data on the racial makeup of each precinct, provided by WNYC’s John Keefe, in order to understand whether there were patterns in types and quantities of summonses issued in precincts with high proportions of minorities or whites.
In the end, the geographical breakdown of summonses coupled with demographic information for each precinct was the closest we could get to the objective view that we had sought by searching for the data on pink slips. Nonetheless, we think it yielded some provocative findings that we hope contribute to the conversation around the NYPD and summonses in the city.