Street vendors welcomed a new policy announced by the Mayor’s Office, which will move enforcement of code violations from the New York City Police Department to a civilian agency, but questions remain on what drove the sudden switch.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month that the NYPD will no longer be in charge of ticketing street vendors for code violations, and a civilian agency would be created to handle the issue. The decision came as the mayor faced a wave of pressure to defund the police department, sparked by a crackdown on police brutality protests in New York.
The decision was celebrated by The Street Vendors Project, an organization that represents thousands of street vendors in New York City. They have been advocating for this shift for years.
“Finally, the mayor has stepped up,” said Mohamed Attia, the Executive Director of the Street Vendor Project. “Of course it’s just one tiny step and a very long road.”
While the policy had been in conversation for some time, onlookers were surprised to see the decision in response to calls for radical changes to the NYPD. Councilmembers who had been working on legislation to end NYPD enforcement of street vendors codes were not consulted, nor was the Street Vendors Project.
The Mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“For many years, the NYPD has ensured that vendors comply with the multitude of city and state laws that govern street vendor operations,” said Detective Sophia Mason, an NYPD spokesperson. “We will work with City Hall to transition these responsibilities to the agency tasked with vendor enforcement going forward.”
The Street Vendor Project said that their focus on getting NYPD enforcement out of street vending really began with the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who suspected him of illegally selling cigarettes on Staten Island.
“Eric Garner was a street vendor. He was selling cigarettes on the sidewalk,” said Attia. “All of our members bring up these challenges about dealing with NYPD. They are usually very disrespectful to street vendors.”
The police are currently in charge of issuing tickets to street vendors for things such as their distance from the curb, noise, or smell complaints. The Street Vendors Project estimates the police issue 18,000 tickets per year, some carrying hefty fines. Vendors are also regulated by a myriad of other agencies such as the Department of Health and the Department of Consumer Affairs.
In November, the NYPD came under fire for handcuffing a woman selling churros at Broadway Junction in Brooklyn and confiscating her stand. A video of the woman crying as she was arrested was posted by a commuter on Twitter and caused a widespread backlash against the NYPD, who were already facing criticism for ramping up policing of the subways. Attia said the incident brought a wave of interest into the issue of policing of street vendors, with several councilmembers taking it on.
In May, a story of NYPD giving tickets to street vendors in the Corona Plaza in Queens was shared widely. According to Attia, these vendors had discussed their plans to sell at the plaza with the local police precinct.
Negotiations on the police ticketing street vendors were ongoing when protests broke out at the end of May in New York City and around the country in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The NYPD took a brutal stance on the protests. State lawmakers were pepper-sprayed, NYPD cars ran over protestors, one officer was charged with assault for shoving a protestor, and dozens of protestors testified to City Council about police abuse during the protests.
The protests morphed into calls to defund the NYPD. Specifically, a cut of $1 billion from its budget which is set to be finalized at the end of June, and a reimagining of what role the NYPD plays in enforcement.
The policy to move street vendor enforcement out of the NYPD’s hands was announced in this backdrop along with other reforms. How street vending enforcement became a focal point remains a mystery. Multiple councilmembers that Documented spoke with, that work on the issue of street vendors, said they had not been notified that it was being considered.
“I’m glad to see that the NYPD will no longer be involved in vendor enforcement,” City Council Speaker Corey Jonson said. “We’ve seen for years that this situation wasn’t working, so this is a positive development in keeping with the Council’s goal of fundamentally rethinking the core functions and responsibilities of the NYPD.”
While the reforms are welcomed, the Street Vendor Project has called on the city council and the mayor to pass legislation that would increase the number of permits available to street vendors to prevent the need for enforcement to begin with. A bill titled Intro 1116 was introduced in 2018 and would create a new agency to oversee vendor enforcement and education. And it would also increase the number of vending permits available in the city for the first time in 40 years.
The organization also joined calls to defund the NYPD and reinvest the money into black and brown communities.