As protesters continue to meet a massive police presence on the streets of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council are under pressure to defund the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and reduce its power. Momentum is building for cuts — the question is how substantial those cuts will be.
The uprising in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is pressing cities and institutions across the country to defund police departments and reinvest in social programs in working-class communities and communities of color. The demand is rooted in the belief that years of new training, body cameras, and attempts to discipline “bad apples” has failed to address what activists say is the root problem: that the criminal justice system is historically rooted in class and racial control and empowers officers to abuse and kill. No amount of retraining, these activists argue, can change this fundamental function of the police. What’s needed is a defunding of police and a shifting of those public resources toward an entirely new approach to public safety.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city would cut $100–150 million of the city’s police department budget. This followed the Minneapolis school board’s vote on Tuesday to end its contract with the police department and the University of Minnesota’s recent commitment to scale back its ties with the police.
In New York City, advocates have been calling since April for the city to rethink its priorities in the wake of the pandemic and make cuts to the NYPD, the nation’s largest police force. The uprising is giving new momentum and shape to those demands.
Growing Push for Cuts
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the NYPD’s budget has increased by more than $1 billion to nearly $6 billion in 2019, though the proceeds it receives from contracts remain shrouded in secrecy. This $6 billion amounts to more than the budgets for the Departments of Health ($1.9 billion), Homeless Services ($2.1 billion), Youth and Community Development ($907 million), and Small Business Services ($293 million) combined.
Even as the city prepares for a new round of austerity due to the pandemic’s economic costs, the mayor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 leaves the NYPD nearly untouched while proposing vast cuts to a range of other social programs. The NYPD would face a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) cut of $16.3 million, as compared to the $470.1 million PEG for the Department of Education, the $177.3 million PEG for the Department of Youth and Community Development, and the $60 million PEG for the Department of Homeless Services. According to the council, the NYPD’s budget faces a cut of less than 1 percent, while the Department of Youth and Community Service faces a 32 percent cut.
On April 30, Communities United for Police Reform and about 110 other organizations, including unions, the Working Families Party, churches, and many other community groups called for the city to redirect NYPD funds to other crucial social services. Council member Brad Lander proposed a hiring freeze, and public safety chair Donovan Richards identified $55 million in cuts through cuts to the cadet class and by reducing overtime for summer events, with other council members backing his call. The NYPD defended its untouchable budget in a virtual hearing in May, arguing that a reduction in the police force could result in a crime spike. Council speaker Corey Johnson of Manhattan cosigned a letter on May 30 calling for 5–7 percent cuts across agencies that had not yet made significant reductions, and singling out the NYPD as one of the agencies that needed slashing.
But mass numbers of protesters taking to the streets in cities and towns across the country have boosted the case for defunding. Communities United for Police Reform announced on Wednesday that they will fight for a $1 billion cut to the police department’s budget in fiscal year 2021. Public advocate Jumaane Williams and council members Carlina Rivera, Antonio Reynoso, Ben Kallos, Carlos Menchaca, and Brad Lander each joined the Wednesday press conference to express their support for significant cuts.
Later that day, 236 current and former staffers who are disappointed in the de Blasio administration released a letter that voiced support for the $1 billion cut. The Policing and Social Justice Project, led by criminologist Alex Vitale, has proposed $1 billion in cuts over four years. On Thursday, comptroller Scott Stringer proposed $1.1 billion cuts over that four-year timeline.
“We’re in a place right now to determine what our next futures look like,” said Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, in a Zoom press conference hosted by Communities United for Police Reform on Wednesday. Asked by a reporter whether organizers worry the issue of police reform will fade to the background once protests end, she said, “The protests are going to last as long as they need to last . . . The only way the issue of police reform fades to the background is if we defund the police, is if we decrease the ability of the NYPD to do things that need to be reformed.”
Digging Into Budget Lines
Advocates have proposed different ideas to reduce the budget. A common theme is canceling this year’s police academy class for new recruits and implementing a hiring freeze, resulting in a decrease in head count by natural attrition. (The NYPD has a roughly 3 percent attrition rate per year.) Other ideas include cutting overtime, reducing spending on non-personnel contracts and technology-related expenses, cutting the agency’s public relations budget, and reducing the NYPD’s expansions into social services like social distance outreach and homeless outreach.
Communities United for Police Reform also wants cuts related to abusive policing, such as savings from firing officers who are on modified duty as a result of their abuse of New Yorkers. They also object to the fact that the city’s payouts for police brutality settlements do not come out of the NYPD’s budget; one study suggests this may reduce the incentive for the police commissioner to control those costs. While the city council does not have the power to require the NYPD to fire officers on modified duty, the council will soon vote on a bill proposed by council member Richards that would require the NYPD to create a set of transparent guidelines for disciplining officers.
Momentum to defund is growing, especially within the city council’s twenty-one-member progressive caucus, but no one knows exactly how negotiations will play out in the council. According to the New York Post, Republican minority leader Steven Matteo, a Staten Island council member, “opposes ideological cuts but still agreed the NYPD would not be spared” in this year’s budget cuts. Kallos, a Manhattan council member and cochair of the progressive caucus, said in an email on Wednesday that a $1 billion cut should be made as soon as possible, but that the plan to achieve it over four years appears most realistic.
Menchaca, a Brooklyn council member and member of the caucus, says he’ll follow the lead of advocates, who are currently calling for a $1 billion cut in the next fiscal year. Council members Lander and Richards, caucus members of Brooklyn and Queens respectively, did not cite specific numbers, but expressed support for several of the advocates’ additional ideas, including reducing the NYPD’s involvement in social services such as homelessness, mental health, and youth services that could be performed by other agencies and community organizations.
“That is a much more fundamental reimagining of the infrastructure of public safety than is easy to achieve through budget cuts,” Lander says. “So to me, the cuts that we’re making here are out of recognition that we have a fiscal crisis, and out of recognition of the demands of the movement for black lives to do something significant in this moment. But they’re more likely a down payment on that more fundamental rethinking.”
The demand to “defund” is currently building a bridge between leftists with abolitionist visions and moderate liberals fed up with cuts to social services. Yet as the council dives more deeply into the NYPD budget, it will have to wrestle with a set of complex questions: To what extent does defunding the NYPD mean ensuring the agency must submit, like all other agencies, to this year’s austerity cuts? Or does it mean a deeper shift of what is required to build healthy communities? Does the NYPD need to be subject to a few new accountability measures, or does it need to be vastly reduced?
Justifying, or Rethinking, Past Boosts
At a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio emphasized his belief that public safety takes investments in youth programming, programs that harness community leadership to deter violence without criminalizing residents, and other social investments. He also expressed support for additional police reforms. He did not waver, however, from his position that a large police force is crucial to maintaining the public peace.
“For folks who say ‘defund the police,’ I would say that is not the way forward. At some point in our history, we may be in a very different situation,” he said. “But, right now . . . having a police force that is able to keep everyone safe and able to engage at the community level, having a police force strong enough to do the work of public safety, also the work of building community with people and healing — I think that’s necessary for now,” he said.
As Jacobin reported Tuesday, the New York City Council has played a major role in enabling the expansion of NYPD since de Blasio took office, and even pushed the administration to boost the police head count in its 2015 budget.
“In hindsight, I think it was a mistake,” Lander says, reflecting on the council’s push. “We imagined there would be accountability where there has not been accountability, and that has just grown to be a very real problem. . . . Perhaps it was naive to believe those things.” Activism on the ground has also compelled him to reimagine what public safety means. “There are so many elements of public safety that we approach through policing that I’d like to see us take a different approach to — that is an understanding that I’ve come to.”
Council member Richards says he doesn’t regret voting for the increased head count, which helped expand the Neighborhood Coordination Officers (NCO) program that he says has led to significant improvements in community-police relations and greater police diversity in his Queens district, the Far Rockaways. Yet he says the policies of the NYPD have been too slow to change and that, in light of the police reaction to recent protests, the progress made by the NCO program has disappeared.
“This moment in time and history gives us a lot of momentum to make everlasting changes within the department. And without a doubt, the uprisings around the country, and George Floyd’s sacrifice should not be in vain,” Richards says.
Reforms Beyond the Budget
Advocates are also pushing for a variety of other legislative steps to improve the accountability of the police force, including the Safer New York Act, a package of five bills in the state legislature. These include a repeal of the state’s infamous Section 50-a, a statute that protects police misconduct and discipline information from public review. It also includes legislation that would require reports on demographic and geographic data on low-level enforcement as well as reports on police killings and deaths in police custody, strengthen the attorney general office’s power over police killings, end marijuana prohibition and direct proceeds to communities impacted by the war on drugs, and reduce arrests for noncriminal offenses. Another bill under consideration would ban racial and ethnic profiling by police. The legislature has announced it will convene next week to vote on a series of criminal justice reform measures. On June 9, the council has plans to vote on a bill that would criminalize the use of police choke hold, along with resolutions to support bills banning and criminalization of the choke hold on a state and federal level. Several other legislative reforms could be in the cards, too.
The national uprising has clearly given new power to campaigns to make the NYPD more accountable and its budget less untouchable. The hard part for the council will be figuring out how such discussions should translate into legislative and budgetary action.