A CUNY Graduate Center Study Highlights the Racialized Harms of Low-Level Arrests

April 26, 2022

NEW YORK, April 26, 2022—In a new study of New Yorkers arrested for low-level offenses, researchers at the CUNY Graduate Center document an ongoing process of criminalization that undermines the resources and well-being of low-income people of color. The study, “Legal process as racialized punishment: The material consequences of discretionary arrests in New York City,” highlights the routine loss of time and money, myriad forms of abuse, and loss of educational, employment, and housing opportunities that New Yorkers experience when arrested for minor charges, whether or not they are found guilty.

The study shows that racism is powerful and visible force in the workings of the New York City criminal justice system, particularly in low-level arrests — an especially important finding in light of Mayor Eric Adams’s support for increased “quality-of-life” enforcement  The researchers and their findings: Ph.D. candidates Gaurav Jashnani and Priscilla Bustamante and Brett Stoudt, a professor of Psychology at the Graduate Center — working as part of the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center — conducted interviews, focus groups, surveys, and preliminary questionnaires with 193 people who had been arrested recently for violations or misdemeanors targeted by broken windows policing strategies — mostly discretionary offenses for which officers could have issued a summons. Participants’ survey responses together with detailed, in-depth interviews allowed the researchers to conclude that this approach to policing in New York City harms Black and Latinx residents in numerous and significant ways, impeding their educational access, employment opportunities, financial stability, access to housing, and, ultimately, their presence in the city.

The New Yorkers targeted for low-level arrests offered their own suggestions for police accountability and stronger urban communities.

“Our study is the first in the country to consider the impact of discretionary arrests,” said Jashnani, “We see these arrests as fundamental because the violence of everyday policing is so often overlooked. Police in the United States murder people each day, which is clearly horrific, but so much of the harm to Black and Latinx communities comes from the economic and psychological impacts of arrests for things like marijuana possession or drinking a beer in front of your home, which other Americans do without consequence. Lower-income New Yorkers of color know that any part of their lives can be interrupted by violent police contact and potential arrest. We spoke with people arrested while riding their bike, walking to the store, sitting on their front steps, out on a date, or even waiting for a friend at the train station.”

By conducting 110 extensive surveys outside of criminal courthouses in all five boroughs of New York City, the researchers were able to speak with a wide array of New Yorkers, though they displayed some commonalities: Over 90% of the participants were people of color, and the average per capita income was less than $20,000 a year. The majority of participants experienced significant harms regardless of the results in court, particularly physical and verbal abuse by police or correctional officers, employment consequences, and financial losses. One participant recounted how an officer threatened to punch him in the face, while another recalled being told, “If I don’t listen to them they’re going to crack my skull open.”

Participants spent hours or days in detention where they were often denied food, water, or bathroom access. Some were denied or dissuaded from seeking medical attention, while others were forced into unwanted medical attention that resulted in hundreds of dollars in emergency room bills. Over a quarter (26%) of survey participants reported verbal abuse including racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs, with 5% being referred to as a “n____r” by police, while 6% were sexually assaulted by an officer during a discretionary arrest; one participant reported being assaulted by a male officer in her own apartment building after being accused of trespassing on the roof. Over half (56%) of the participants faced employment consequences such as getting fired or missing days of work as a result of a low-level arrest, while one in five (20%) lost their housing or space in a shelter. Fully two-thirds (67%) experienced financial losses, including 54% who had property damaged or never returned by police.

The study also underscored the importance of accumulating consequences, as participants described a constant police presence in their everyday lives that could easily spiral into an inescapable cycle of policing and incarceration. Most (65%) of the survey respondents had experienced multiple discretionary arrests, and over a quarter (26%) had more than five such arrests. Some study participants had been stopped by police dozens of times under suspicion of these low-level offenses.

While experiencing a range of negative consequences, New Yorkers arrested for low-level offenses also offered holistic visions of safety for their communities. Some highlighted the need to reallocate public funds from policing to needed areas such as housing and education, while others stressed the importance of challenging gentrification in order to maintain social networks and informal supports that help to prevent violence. Several participants described the need for steps toward police accountability and reform, including reducing armed patrols, eliminating expectations and rewards for high numbers of stops or arrests, and increasing consequences for violating laws or departmental policies regarding the use of force.

Policy Recommendations:

The study’s findings support an ongoing legislative effort, the Safer NY Act, which includes a component to “Reduce unnecessary arrests for non-criminal offenses.” This aspect of the bill would eliminate the discretion of individual officers to arrest individuals for violations (minor, non-criminal infractions), allowing them to simply issue a summons.

“Many in this country, including many New Yorkers, are reexamining the role of policing in our society,” said Stoudt. “Our study illustrates the broad and cumulative harms of low-level arrests in communities of color. It also lends support to movements calling for a radical reimagination of public safety away from carceral interventions.”.

About the Public Science Project

The Public Science Project (PSP) grew out of more than a decade’s worth of participatory action research (PAR) at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY). First organized as The PAR Collective, PSP researchers began their work as a coalition of activists, researchers, youth, elders, lawyers, prisoners, and educators launching projects on educational injustice, lives under surveillance, and the collateral damage of mass incarceration. Most of these projects have been situated in schools and/or community-based organizations struggling for quality education, economic opportunities, and human rights. Knowledge-sharing research camps set the stage for most of this work, designed to bring together differently positioned people around a common table to design and implement the research: youth and educators; young people who have been pushed out of schools and mothers organizing for quality education in communities under siege; prisoners, organizers, and academics. Most projects have vibrant advisory boards of youth, community elders, educators and/or activists to shape the work and hold us accountable to the needs and desires of local communities.

Media Contact: Tanya Domi, tdomi@gc.cuny.edu, 646-512-0273

About the Graduate Center of The City University of New York
The CUNY Graduate Center is a leader in public graduate education devoted to enhancing the public good through pioneering research, serious learning, and reasoned debate. The Graduate Center offers ambitious students nearly 50 doctoral and master’s programs of the highest caliber, taught by top faculty from throughout CUNY — the nation’s largest urban public university. Through its nearly 40 centers, institutes, initiatives, and the Advanced Science Research Center, the Graduate Center influences public policy and discourse and shapes innovation. The Graduate Center’s extensive public programs make it a home for culture and conversation.