Halal Carts and the NYPD

Halal Carts and the NYPD

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has many responsibilities within the city including enforcing the law, preserving peace, and maintaining order. Yet many people aren’t aware that police officers are also responsible for regulating street food vendors including halal carts on a daily basis. The NYPD is the primary agency responsible for the enforcement of these regulations throughout the entire city. However, most of the police force members aren’t specifically trained for this additional duty. In fact, there only exists one specific police unit who is trained and assigned the region South of 59th Street in Manhattan with these duties. Other NYPD officers simply include this enforcement as a part of their patrol routine and thus, create an ambiguous and complex relationship between these two parties when regarding city bureaucracy.

Taken by J.C. Rice for the New York Post

One of the most popular actions the NYPD takes on when mandating halal carts include writing up violation tickets related to parking, permit, health violations, and more. With this additional responsibility, the NYPD is then expected to be kept up to date with the complicated vending laws written by the state and city’s health and consumer-affairs department. However, most officers are not assigning these tickets correctly and thus the tickets often get thrown out. According to the New York Post, out of all of 2014’s 19,924 ticket offenses, a court dismissed 5,266 tickets. A disabled Vietnam veteran named Dan Rossi sells hot dogs outside of the Metropolitan museum. In 2014, Rossi received 350 tickets, but he was only responsible for 2 of them as the rest were invalidated in court.

Courtesy of VendorsPOWER on Flickr

In addition, most of these tickets charge the street vendors an absurd fine. The New York Post cited from The Village Voice that the city handed out over 26,000 tickets to street vendors in 2012 – most of which were charged at $1,000. A majority of these fines were given out due to minor issues and weren’t related to health and safety issues. For example, some of the causes included vending too far from a curb or street vendors not wearing their vending license visibly around their neck. Most vendors are not able to afford these fines as they earn roughly $100 in profits a day and proceed not to pay them. Thus, if a legitimate ticket were to be written by an officer, vendors often don’t pay or cannot pay. Overall, there exists a lack of the NYPD’s familiarity with their street vendor responsibilities as well as the lack of rights the street vendors have in this relationship. As more immigrants arrive and enter the halal cart business, they also face another set of hurdles regarding the NYPD to overcome in addition to the difficulties of the competitive halal cart market in New York City.

Another method the NYPD mandates halal carts include the authority to arrest. Not only does the NYPD detain street vendors for the alleged violations, but they are also allowed to confiscate the cart and assign additional tickets and fines. According to an article from Salon, Omar, an Egyptian immigrant halal cart vendor who arrived to the US in 2009, claims that police officers often harass, arrest, and fine street vendors for alleged violations of street space. When Omar admitted that the fines, costs, and humiliation became too much for him to bear, he had joined the Street Vendor Project to alleviate the difficulties of police harassment and unfair charges.

Check out some of SVP’s past cases: [HERE]
Street Vendor Project (SVP), which is led by lawyers and advocates for nearly 2,000 New York Street vendors, encourages food cart operators to record their interactions with police in order to provide video evidence to be revised and settled when they street vendors are in court contesting tickets.

In 2013, Sean Basinski, a lawyer who founded and is the current director of SVP, was arrested in front of the Midtown North Precinct police station on West 54th Street while using his phone to record after witnessing police officers confiscating another vendor’s cart and preparing to issue a ticket. Basinski was charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration, according to a criminal complaint filed by Officer Robert Browne.  A video provided by a bystander after Basinski’s release captured his encounter with the officers and was uploaded online. It is legal to record police activity in public areas in NYC as long as it does not interfere with the officers carrying out their duties. Basinski responded to The New York Times after the incident, “If this happens to me – a white guy, wearing a business suit, a lawyer, 6-foot-3, not easily intimidated – it can certainly happen to our members”.

Street vendors, including halal cart vendors, are no strangers to violent arrests by the police. In 2014, a viral video of NYPD officers “pushing, shoving, and kicking” Brooklyn street festival vendors for not evacuating the crowded Fifth Avenue Street Festival area fast enough. These actions were conducted under the arresting process of these vendors. Dennis Flores, who witnessed the action briefly, reported to the Huffington Post “At six o’clock they promptly shut down the event. At 6:05, they were already under arrest… That’s not ample time for people to pack up and clear away”.

SVP protestors against police brutality
Courtesy of VendorsPOWER via Flickr

Although multiple cops participated in this controversial arrest, only one officer, who was taped on a cellphone, was suspended for kicking a vendor. There have been incidents where officers have directed people to not record them in similar situations. The NYPD 13th Precinct declined to comment on this claim.

Another concern halal carts have to deal with regarding the NYPD is patrol. There are more available and patrolling officers present on the streets in Manhattan in comparison to other streets in the remaining boroughs. Halal carts are also more ubiquitous in the city on a street basis as opposed to a more scattered presence of halal carts in other boroughs. Thus, the NYPD relationship with vendors vary depending on the borough and situation. For example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a well-known tourist attraction with considerable amount of foot traffic. As a result, there exists a “gridlock” as NYPress describes it where there exists a chain of food vendors on the street in front of the Met. The surge of vendors to sell on this well coveted real estate originated when Rossi, the Vietnam veteran, won a case where he fought against “an attempt by city officials [including the NYPD] to marginalize veteran-owned food vendors”. This allowed Rossi to remain open and operate under the veteran tax exemption, which then attracted other veterans to take advantage of the tax exemption. Rossi also has a specialized court order that allows his family’s business to be the only ones to sell food at 1000 Fifth Ave. Yet, Rossi admits that city regulators are not enforcing his court order as halal carts continue to park beside him and hurt his business. The Museum staff have reported that in the past, the police would turn away any halal carts within minutes of them parking near Rossi. However, there are also times where the NYPD are not present to intervene for long periods of time and thus result in carts packed together all on one street.

Khan’s Halal Food Cart
Courtesy of Tsz-Cheong “TC” C. via Yelp

In contrast to the police in Manhattan, from an interview conducted with Khan’s Halal Food Cart on the intersection of Northern Blvd. and Bell Blvd. in Queens, the interviewee laughed off the question regarding any conflicts with NYPD. The vendor simply stated there were no issues with the police that he was aware of, if anything, it would be “not enough sauce for the police”. He declined to elaborate further on this issue.

A revision of the current system would alleviate some current issues between the NYPD and halal carts. Michele Birnbaum, a longtime Upper East Side resident, reported to the New York Post that she would like to see a separate vendor-enforcement squad. Rather having the NYPD take on the additional burden of writing up vending related tickets, civilian city workers trained in vending law could do this task.

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