As city leaders wrestle with how to adapt police tactics to a lower-crime era, the police department in recent months has suggested it would loosen its approach to public urination.
NEW YORK — Evidence pools beneath rows of pay phones, between parked cars, outside bars where last call has come and gone.
The culprits can be found in any neighborhood of New York City. And teams of plainclothes police officers, unsympathetic to the urge, know where to lie in wait. Sometimes.
“This is tradition,” Alejandro Gomez, 31, said recently from a bench in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he shared a six-pack with two friends who rose to urinate, undetected, beside a park around 2 a.m.
As city leaders wrestle with how to adapt police tactics to a lower-crime era, the Police Department in recent months has suggested it would loosen its approach to public urination, a quintessential quality-of-life crime whose effects have a tendency to linger — both on the street and for the person cited.
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Skeptics have bemoaned any proposed shift as an emblem of backslide after decades of aggressive policing. But Commissioner William Bratton, in a May letter to the City Council, said he was open to treating the offense as a violation only, rather than a misdemeanor, so long as officers preserved the right to make an arrest if necessary.
The offense — and others subject to possible changes, like biking on sidewalks and staying in parks after hours — cuts to the core of the debate over policing in New York City: Are minor crimes the harbingers of neighborhood decline, or are they largely victimless acts that needlessly entangle residents, particularly young black and Hispanic men, in the justice system?
Public urination has emerged as an especially thorny test case, scrambling traditional political allegiances among even left-leaning lawmakers who generally favor less aggressive policing.
“We lived in a city, not that long ago, where the smell of urine was so prevalent in some of our economically challenged communities, people felt that they were afraid to go out at night,” Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, said this year. “I just think that we should enforce the law fairly, but also keep in mind that we have to have some laws.”
Last year, 28,609 people were cited for public urination, an offense that must be witnessed by an officer to be charged. As of June 14, there have been 6,799 such tickets, down from 8,329 at this point in 2014. (During that same period, officers wrote 33,971 summonses for public-alcohol consumption, down from 44,339 last year.)
A particularly egregious example appeared on the cover of The New York Post on Saturday: a man relieving himself in broad daylight in the middle of Broadway traffic. But more common are arrests around late-night hangouts. I
n 2014, the 110th Precinct, wrote 1,329 summonses for public urination, nearly 400 more than in any other precinct. Other top areas included East Harlem and the West Village in Manhattan, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Astoria and Long Island City in Queens.
So far this year, the top precincts are similarly replete with bars and drinkers. “It happens a lot, especially in the darker side streets,” said Jessica Perdomo, who works at a restaurant in Queens.
Councilman Corey Johnson said that though penalties for some nonviolent offenses should be reduced, public urination was a separate matter.
“There is already a significant problem every single weekend with widespread, out-of-control peeing,” Johnson, who represents much of Manhattan’s West Side, said.
Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her allies have been careful to point out that reduced penalties would not imply an acceptance of the behavior. Only the punishments would change.
In many cases, the $50 ticket can be paid by mail, provided the person pleads guilty. That can create ramifications for job seekers and immigrants, said Jason Stern, 45, a lawyer who specializes in public-urination cases. For example, he said, when applying for a green card, a person is asked to disclose anything more serious than a traffic infraction.
“None of my clients are hiring me to save themselves $50,” said Stern, who charges $500 to $1,000 per case and whose clients include working professionals, college students and taxi drivers. “Taxi drivers get a lot of public-urination tickets.”
That Stern can sustain a legal practice in this way underscores the stigma that comes with having to put down “public urination” on an official form. Stern said he has been able to get the charge changed to littering; the same fine applies, but the stigma is substantially reduced.