You might want to think twice before picking up one of those tree air fresheners at the car wash. Hanging one from your rearview mirror can get you a ticket. One resident learned that the hard way when he got stopped at a police checkpoint in Far Rockaway, which some say are popping up more frequently on the east end of the peninsula.
While returning home from the office on the evening on March 6th, president of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, Milan Taylor, 25, came across a checkpoint and was told to pull to the side. Having experienced being pulled over at checkpoints on many occasions, Taylor says he presented his license and registration to the officer, as it is common practice for them to ask for it. What resulted wasn’t so common.
Taylor says the officer started questioning him, asking things like where he was coming from and where he was going. “I stated that I was an active member of the 101st Precinct. Community Council and a board member of Community Board 14 and I even handed over my Rockaway Youth Task Force business card,” Taylor recalled.
Taylor says he was forced to sit and wait more than half an hour before the officer returned to his car and issued him an “obstruction of view” summons over the air freshener hanging from his mirror, which under state law, is an offense. While it doesn’t specify an air freshener directly, Section 375, article 30 of the NYS Vehicle and Traffic law states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle with any object placed or hung in or upon the vehicle, except required or permitted equipment of the vehicle, in such a manner as to obstruct or interfere with the view of the operator through the windshield, or to prevent him from having a clear and full view of the road and condition of traffic behind such vehicle.”
This could mean that anything hanging from the windshield, from air fresheners, to handicap placards, to prayer beads and graduation tassels, may fall under this category.
“Normally the police don’t stop you for an air freshener,” Denean Ferguson, vice president of the 101st Precinct Community Council said. She said that issuing a summons is often up to the discretion of the officer. She pointed out that the discretion may depend on how the driver handles the situation or addresses the officer. Also, having been pulled over at checkpoints herself recently, she noted that some of the officers operating the checkpoints are new. “Some of these guys are young recruits and might not have the same discretion as a seasoned officer might have,” Ferguson said.
The RYTF president says he didn’t do anything to provoke the officer. “I vividly remember that I did not have an attitude with him,” Taylor said. “I could tell he was a rookie and was overzealous. From the beginning of the stop, through the way he was speaking and his demeanor, it seemed like he was looking for something to give me a summons for,” he said, adding that the officer used a flashlight to look inside his windows and even asked him to press on his brake lights, so he could see if his brake lights weren’t working.
Kevin Campbell, the Community Affairs Officer of the 101st Precinct said, “Vehicle safety check points are performed throughout the city for the primary purpose of a DWI check or vehicle safety checks. These measures are taken to ensure both driver and pedestrian safety for the residents of Far Rockaway. Vehicle check points are conducted on a regular basis and most often guided by “Accident Prone Locations” or other pedestrian safety criteria. Post hurricane “Sandy” vehicle safety check points were nearly non-existent due to the extensive recovery process. As conditions have returned to some form of normalcy, so has traffic conditions and subsequently the return of check points. Check points are conducted by both the officers of the 101st Precinct as well as officers assigned to the Patrol Borough of Queens South operating within the confines of the 101 precinct.”
Assistant Chief David Barrere, recently promoted and assigned to Queens South and who coincidentally introduced himself to the Community Board on Tuesday night said it wasn’t a police initiative or policy to target air fresheners. He shook his head and disparaged that type of summons. Not having more information about Taylor’s experience, he declined to elaborate, though wondered if there were more to the story.
Taylor and other Far Rockaway residents have claimed that these checkpoints seem to be popping up more often than usual and Taylor believes it may have something to do with Mayor de Blasio’s new plan called “Vision Zero.” The goal of the plan is to reduce the number of vehicle related fatalities as much as possible, with the end goal being zero deaths. To do this, city agencies like the NYPD, Department of Transportation, the Taxi and Limousine Commission and others are cracking down on road and vehicle safety.
Councilman Donovan Richards also made a point that new NYPD Commissioner William Bratton believes in the broken window theory. “What they’re checking for at checkpoints is minor infractions, which I’m assuming is because of the commissioner’s ideology that, if you catch some smaller crimes early, then you can prevent bigger ones from happening in the future,” Richards said. Richards noted that no one is exempt from being stopped at checkpoints. In fact, he says, he was pulled over recently. “The officers who I dealt with were very respectful and courteous,” he added.
However, Richards also sees how these checkpoints could potentially harm the relationship between the community and police. “I don’t want to tell the police what to do, but I want to caution them that the more they do these things, the more they build distrust with the community,” Richards said. Taylor made a similar point saying, “These officers aren’t using the CPR slogan, courtesy, professionalism and respect. That doesn’t help the police/community relations that the mayor says is being repaired.”
Some Far Rockaway residents, including Taylor, have compared these checkpoints and new tactics to Stop and Frisk. “Stop and Frisk has declined. I don’t hear people complaining about that, but now I’m speaking to older teens and young adults who say they’re constantly getting pulled over in Far Rockaway,” Taylor said. “When we go into other neighborhoods in Rockaway, or even outside the peninsula, I don’t see these checkpoints. It just really seems that because they can’t stop and frisk, they implemented this program to target young minorities.”
A Broad Channel resident, who heard Milan’s story, said that she could relate to getting ticketed for something that seemed unnecessary during a random stop. “I felt Milan’s anger. I felt like the officer should have used discretion,” she said. She was recently stopped by police along Cross Bay Boulevard and was given a summons for tinted windows.
“I was annoyed because of all the young, drug dealing, racecar driving people, you’re really pulling me, a grandmother, over in a pickup truck? Do I really look like a person that is trouble?,” the woman said. “I agree with the law. I, myself, don’t like that I can’t see people in tinted windows, but I felt like a warning would have been appropriate. I do feel like the police have a quota when it comes to these tickets. They couldn’t get Milan on anything else, so they got him on the air freshener. We want to respect the law and police officers, but when you do something like this, it makes it harder.”
Richards said he was told by police that the stops are random. “They’re not racially profiling anyone. They’re random stops. This strategy is a good thing if it is going to keep crime down and if they’re doing it in the right way. If the precinct is effectively communicating with the community, the community would know that this isn’t a police state,” Richards said.
While getting penalized for an air freshener may seem overboard, the checkpoints that have been set up this year have also been used to catch people with bigger offenses. According to Ferguson, since January 1st, through checkpoints commanded by the 101st Precinct, there have been 87 suspended license arrests, 160 unlicensed operator instances, 437 cases of an uninsured vehicle and 15 unregistered vehicles that have been stopped.
The location of these checkpoints also seems to be random although some seem to be at the same location repeatedly. “I have personally been stopped at the Rockaway Freeway and Beach 55th Street location, as did Milan. Deputy Inspector Wynne said that the checkpoints can be rotated,” Ferguson said, adding that the rotation may be why there are complaints about the checkpoints being everywhere.
Richards noted that drivers can take action if they feel that a checkpoint situation may have been unfair. “If you feel like you’ve been dealt with the wrong way, file a Civilian Complaint Review Board form. The City is looking at these complaints and the City council has a special interest in making sure the police and community work together,” Richards said.
Ferguson also pointed out that 101st Precinct has ways for the community to address their concerns with them. The 101st Precinct Community Council meeting is held every third Wednesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at 1821 Cornaga Avenue. The Far Rockaway library is also hosting a program called “Coffee with a Cop” in which community members can sit down with local police officers to discuss issues. These meetings will take place on March 20th and 27th from 2 to 3 p.m.
As far as the air freshener summons, Taylor said he plans on fighting it. He has since thrown the little tree away.