By Megan Davies
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A sharp drop in arrests and fines in New York may prove costly for the city but it could already be hurting some traffic lawyers and bail bonds firms, which are seeing their phones ring less often as fewer people are in trouble and need help.
The slump in arrest volume - last week's total was around half that recorded a year ago - is seen by supporters of new York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as evidence of a work slowdown by police officers angered by recent comments he made that they viewed as anti-police. Police unions say they have not sanctioned a slowdown.
"We're seeing less phone calls, less emails, less faxes from people with tickets that are newly issued," said New York traffic lawyer Matthew Weiss. "It started at the beginning of the year." Revenues for his New York City traffic ticket business - including moving violations and criminal matters - are down roughly 30 percent to 40 percent since the end of December.
Traffic lawyers typically represent motorists who are pulled over by police for alleged offenses such as speeding, texting and reckless driving. They may also fight parking tickets.
"I've definitely noticed a drop in calls," said lawyer Isaac Abraham. Abraham said the fall in business could, however, be an impact from the holidays and it was too early to tell if it was from the fewer reported arrests.
Some lawyers said they were seeing business as usual and any noticeable drop could be delayed as there can be a lag between the time a motorist gets a ticket and when they call a lawyer.
"Not everyone necessarily calls a lawyer the minute they get a ticket," said attorney Scott Feifer, who said he had not seen any tangible impact from the fall in arrests and court summons.
BAIL BONDSMEN SAY BUSINESS SLOW
The number of arrests across the city plunged to 2,401 from 5,448 in the week ending Sunday compared with the same period the previous year, with parking and driving-related tickets down more than 90 percent according to New York Police Department data.
There has also been a marked drop in new arrivals in the city's jails. There were 575 new inmates booked in over the week beginning Dec. 22, compared to a typical number of about 1,000 for the same week in the previous three years, according to data from the city's Department of Correction.
Last week, only 618 new inmates arrived in the system, compared to 1,041 for the final week of 2013. The department declined to answer questions about the decline.
De Blasio on Monday brushed off questions about whether the drop in arrests was a concerted effort by police to slow work following the murder of two policemen in their patrol car on Dec. 20. He and Police Commissioner William Bratton said they needed more time before ruling out the possibility of police insubordination.
Parking fines are a small but significant revenue source for the city. Revenues from parking violation fines for 2014 amounted to $542 million, according to data from New York's Office of Management and Budget.
That equates to around $10 million a week, still a fraction of the city's $75 billion budget.
If parking ticket revenues take a long-term knock, it could pressure a budget that has had a persistent, though shrinking, long-term deficit. New York City's Comptroller's office said they did not have granular enough data to be able to assess the financial impact of the drop in arrests and summonses.
Bratton said the city may actually be saving money if summonses are not being written because the city is not paying overtime to officers to go to court to testify.
Alongside traffic attorneys, some bail bond firms said they were also seeing a drop in business.
"Definitely, it's been very slow - a lot of attorneys are having issues as well," said Miguel Rodrigues, co-owner of David Jakab Bail Bonds situated in Manhattan's Chinatown near New York's criminal court. "I would be concerned if it goes for a month."
Empire Bail Bonds, which has offices around New York including in Queens and Brooklyn, said business volume was down about 50 percent since Christmas.
"Empire is very large and can withstand the bump ... but your average Mom and Pop shop can't," said Empire Bail Bonds president Michelle Esquenazi.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Hilary Russ and Samantha Sunne, editing by Ross Colvin)