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As COVID-19 Drives NYers To Drink Outside, The NYPD Is Still Overwhelmingly Ticketing People Of Color

arrow Peter Foley/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For many New Yorkers, having more places to drink outdoors has been a small bright spot during the pandemic. To-go alcohol sales have been a lifeline for many bars and restaurants as quarantine-fatigued people adapt to the new landscape. 

But drinking at a restaurant, albeit outdoors, is not for everyone. 

“These bars and these places, like, come on. You take a ruler, it's not six feet apart,” said Jessica Baltazar, 32, a public school teacher. “And that's where it becomes scary. In a park, I feel like it's less scary and like my anxiety is lower.”

That, however, is where the city’s open container law comes in: drinking outdoors is still illegal. And when it comes to policing, Blacks and Hispanics are being disproportionately ticketed.

All told, the NYPD has handed out 1,250 criminal summonses since January for drinking in public. Of that number 48 percent went to Black individuals, while about 43 percent went to those who are Hispanic.

Only 7 percent of summonses were issued to white people. 

While the police gave out half as many summonses for public drinking as the same period in 2019, the racial pattern was basically the same.

arrow Clarisa Diaz

Reached for comment, NYPD spokesman Al Baker said in statement, "The NYPD enforces the law fairly and equally, and works tirelessly every day to keep every resident and every neighborhood safe."

The striking disparity has fueled calls to abolish open container laws.

“I don't think it is productive to have a law on the books with this kind of gray area of enforcement,” said Shabazz Stuart, a transportation policy advocate who recently wrote an op-ed for Streetsblog calling for the state to legalize drinking in public. 

“I don't think it's fair. I don't think it is conducive to a healthy society," he added.

Stuart, who is Black, said he is worried that despite police reforms over the last decade, open container laws are too often used by officers as an excuse to question and search young men of color.

“If you grow up in a community like mine, you understand, word gets out, right? You understand the culture of fear that exists around police officers,” he said.

The proposal has support from a few legislators, including New York Assemblymember Robert Carroll, who represents parts of Brooklyn such as Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, and Kensington. He introduced a bill earlier this year to ban open container laws.

“Usually, the simplest solution is the best solution," Carroll said. "And this is the simplest solution, they do it across the globe."

But Carroll’s bill, which currently has only three other sponsors, does not appear likely to pass any time soon, especially as Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state and city officials have voiced concerns about outdoor alcohol consumption lowering inhibitions necessary to maintain social distance.

Listen to reporter Danny Lewis's radio story for WNYC:

Meanwhile, some New York City officials, like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, say the focus should be on the NYPD.

“The fact of the matter is, I know that if this was reversed and that 90 percent of these summonses were white and seven percent black and brown, they probably would take the law off the books,” Williams said.

He added: “I don't think people should be walking around drunk. I don't think they should be walking around high. I do know that if there are laws on the books, at minimum, they should be applied equally, equitably across the board. And that just isn't done.”

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