May 23, 2003

Thicket of Tickets Makes Life Thorny for Us

Living in New York City is getting more expensive by the day.

Our property taxes just went up 18.5 percent, and we're facing an income-tax surcharge and a hike in the sales tax, which is already pretty high. Subway and bus fares just hit an amazing $2, while the bridge and tunnel tolls have jumped to $4 each way.

And now the citizens of New York City are on the receiving end of a ticket blitz. According to a Daily News story this week, in order to plug the city's yawning multibillion-dollar budget gap, city agencies are handing out summonses at a wildly accelerated pace for everything from parking and moving violations to building code violations to failing to sweep sidewalks or to dispose of household trash, and for so-called "quality of life" offenses such as drinking beer in public, disorderly conduct and trespassing.

The head of the police officer's union this week called the police department a "summons machine" that is collaborating with City Hall to raise revenue by forcing police officers to meet ticket quotas. The quotas, coupled with the fact that many fines have doubled in the last year, are generating hundreds of millions of dollars to help close the city's budget gap.

On Tuesday, the head of the Latino officers' association made similar charges, claiming that the quota requirement robs police officers of their discretionary powers and, furthermore, is illegal.

According to the Patrolman's Benevolent Association and the Latino officers' association, the quotas average around 25 summonses per officer per month, including about 20 parking violations, five moving violations and up to seven quality-of-life summonses. Rookie cops are instructed in the quota system from the time they first hit the beat, and officers who don't make their quotas are punished with bad schedules, unwanted transfers, denial of overtime and promotions, and low-job ratings.

The system results in rivalry among officers in the same precinct over who's written the most summonses and creates bad feelings in the communities they police when officers must go prowling for victims to fill their quotas.

"Police officers should be rewarded for deterring crime, not for writing twenty parking, five movers and five quality of lifers," said Anthony Miranda, a retired New York City cop and executive chairman of the National Latino Officers Association.

The New York Police Department vigorously denies having any form of a quota system, and certainly not one for revenue purposes. Department officials claim that while the number of quality-of-life summonses issued has indeed increased in the last year, summonses for parking and moving violations have actually decreased. The mayor's office also denies that a quota system exists. With the cost of a parking ticket having jumped from $55 to $105 in the last year, cops don't have to increase volume to boost revenue significantly.

In the ongoing debate over whether there's a quota system, I tend to trust the cops. Retired Officer Miranda said there were quotas in existence during the entire 21 years he was on the police force.

Frankly, I'm all for more summonses for building code violators. And I'd gladly volunteer to write tickets for those fiends who insist on blocking intersections and causing gridlock. But with all the other taxes and rate hikes that New Yorkers are being asked to bear these days, there's something really cheesy about the prospect of being stalked by cops who are under orders to catch us jaywalking from the bus stop to our apartment building, riding our bike on the sidewalk or parking illegally when all we're trying to do is pick up grandma.

It would be nice to nail down this quota business once and for all. The Latino officers are calling for an investigation by the state's attorney general into whether a quota system exists, and such an investigation seems called for.

In the meantime, a little tolerance, please, with the tickets. We're under enough stress as it is.