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Why Drinking Beer in Central Park Is a Toast to Civil Liberty

Manhattan’s new policies on “quality of life” offenses could prevent 10,000 arrests every year.

Photo via Flickr user Travis Wise

Bye-bye, brown bags: New Yorkers can now crack open a cold one in public without risking a night in jail. According to the Observer, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced Monday that several minor crimes—among them public urination, littering, riding between subway cars, and drinking in public—will no longer be arrestable offenses on the island. Cops will, however, still be able to issue summonses for these low-level violations.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office claims the changes in policing will prevent 10,000 arrests every year. “By giving cops the discretion to issue summonses instead of requiring them to make arrests, we ensure they do not spend hours processing cases as minor as littering, and we enable officers to get back to patrolling, investigating, and keeping our neighborhoods safe,” Vance said in a statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the new policing framework “will help make sure resources are focused on our main priority: addressing threats to public safety. Today’s reforms allow our hardworking police officers to concentrate their efforts on the narrow group of individuals driving violent crime in New York City.”

This is a great development for NYC, not just because it’s one strike against America’s buzzkill open-container laws, but because crimes like public drinking and public urination—called “quality of life” or “broken window” offenses—are often used to target marginalized residents of the city, either (supposedly) to deter greater crimes, or just to let arrestees know they’re not welcome in certain neighborhoods. While issuing summonses for these offenses can still create a hostile environment and cause trouble for those without means or with adverse legal histories, the city’s new policies are a step toward reforming policing that improves life for a small percentage of the city’s residents while making life harder for many others.

In 2014, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reported that 1.6 million public drinking charges were issued between 2001 and 2013. In cases in which the race of those charged was recorded, more than 80 percent of public drinking infractions were brought against people of color.

“We believe people of color are more likely to get a violation for open containers,” Johanna Miller, the NYCLU’s advocacy director, told The Daily Beast last year.

In January, regarding a package of bills put before the New York City Council to reform broken-window policing laws, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a council member, told the New York Times: “We know that the system has been really rigged against communities of color in particular. So the question has always been, what can we do in this job to minimize unnecessary interaction with the criminal justice system, so that … young people can really fulfill their potential?”

The city’s move to prevent arrests for small infractions follows a series of decisions New York has made over the last few years to free up an overburdened criminal justice system and attempt to fix relations between the police and minority residents. In 2014, for example, the city announced that the NYPD would no longer arrest people caught carrying less than 25 grams of marijuana.

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