On September 5, our story examining the New York Police Department’s issuance of summonses for quality-of-life offenses, and the legal scrutiny the practice had come under recently for alleged civil rights violations, went live.
Accompanied by an interactive map that allowed readers to see how many pink slips and what types were given in every precinct in the city, the article gave city residents a glimpse into the behavior of police when it comes to enforcing quality-of-life offenses.
That same day, we sent out a tweet: “Still not sure how Park Slope got 76 summonses last year compared w/Mott Haven’s 13K+ or W’burg’s 11K+ Theories?”
The question had dogged us since we started sifting through summonses data provided to us by the New York City Criminal Court showing what the court’s staff and own records indicated were every NYPD-issued criminal summons docketed in the city (The data was sent in response to a written request made to the administration of the court rather than a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request; court records are subject to disclosure under Section 255 of the Judiciary Law, not FOIL.)
Feedback from readers to the story soon led us to the answer: the data we had received from the court did not include information for an alternative court system within New York City that includes the Red Hook Community Justice Center and the Midtown Community Court.
These two courts perform the same functions as regular courts, including family, summonses, and criminal proceedings, but take a practical and philosophically different approach to the application of justice. (See our story “A different sort of court.”)
And, it turns out, summonses information for these alternative courts are kept in a separate database than other New York City courts. As a result, only partial summonses data for precincts within the catchment areas for both the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Midtown Community Court (10th, 14th, 18th, 20th, 72nd, 76th and 78th) was included in the data given to us.
Getting this new data proved difficult: It would take at least several months to deliver, according to the court, in part because of extreme budget cuts that had led to a loss of staff and resources capable of handling our request. Furthermore, the Center for Court Innovation, which oversees the two community courts, was also unable to provide it.
So we turned to another source of information.
Every quarter, the NYPD is required to issue reports to the City Council showing how many summonses officers issued in each precinct. By aggregating this information for 2011 — the result of a FOIL request made to the City Council — we were able to come up with a rough estimate of how many summonses were issued in the seven precincts under the auspices of the alternative courts.
Though we still don’t know what types of summonses were issued in these precincts, the numbers give us a more accurate view of where the NYPD issues summonses. Our interactive map now includes our best estimates of the total number of summonses in those seven precincts, delineated in red. The blue dots within those precincts represent summonses that, for various reasons particular to the individual cases, proceeded through the traditional summonses courts.
The new summonses data compiled by us encompasses some 30,000 additional summonses and changes several details of our original story, though not the fundamental findings.
Rather than 60 percent of summonses being issued in precincts with a population 80 percent or more nonwhite in 2011, the new data shows this number reduced to 55 percent of all summonses issued in those precincts.
And because the criminal court’s data excluded some 23,000 summonses that went through the Midtown Community Court in 2011, Manhattan now tops the list of summonses issued per resident, followed by the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.
The summonses story proved to us that it is impossible to interrogate data enough in order to find satisfying explanations for outliers, and it’s a good idea to thoroughly question the source of the data itself to insure the greatest degree of thoroughness and accuracy.