In 2014, a political revolution happened in New York City. Bill de Blasio stormed into City Hall on a promise of reforming the New York Police Department (NYPD) after twelve years of technocratic and intermittently reactionary rule from mayor Michael Bloomberg. A majority of the City Council was term-limited, replaced by a younger, more progressive cohort.
De Blasio had been elected on a vow to reduce the police practice of stopping and frisking black and brown New Yorkers. He promised to fundamentally transform the way heavily armed police interacted with a populace that was tired of the NYPD’s heavy hand.
It soon became clear that de Blasio’s rhetoric couldn’t match reality. His new police commissioner was Bill Bratton, who first gained fame implementing a racist “broken windows” policing strategy under mayor Rudy Giuliani. Bratton was picked in part because de Blasio wanted to make a concession to the city elites who were wary of a liberal Democrat taking control of New York City for the first time since the early 1990s. Those who knew de Blasio intimately would say that he believed no progressive reform could occur unless crime remained low and the police were placated — Bratton, the law-and-order bulldog, would be de Blasio’s man.
But something strange happened in 2014. The fifty-one-member City Council, which in some ways was even more progressive than the new mayor, made it clear that it really wanted to hire more police officers. And they eventually got their wish.
Today, New York is convulsed with mass protests against police brutality, while de Blasio continues to defend a police department that has attacked unarmed demonstrators and even plowed a police vehicle straight into a crowd. But there’s something else that must be remembered: most of the progressive Democrats decrying the NYPD’s behavior today were behind a long-standing campaign to swell the police department’s ranks less than a decade ago.
“More police officers has been something the Council has made a priority for quite some time,” Jumaane Williams, a former member of the City Council and now the New York City public advocate, said in 2015. “I’m disappointed we haven’t seen it yet.”
Williams, who is second in line to the mayor, remains a prominent critic of the NYPD. But like many of the City Council’s left flank in the 2010s, he perplexingly joined the hiring of more police with the cause of reform. It’s a stance that, in 2020, puts most elected officials in New York far out of touch with the police reform movement itself, which is firmly uniting behind the idea of shrinking the near $6 billion budget of the department, especially as tax revenues plummet from coronavirus-induced shutdowns.
No Reform From Above
Why did so many self-identified progressive council members embrace sending more heavily armed police into vulnerable communities? For some, it was the mistaken idea that crime was somehow spiking after de Blasio took office.
“Mayor de Blasio and the commissioner have talked about a reduction in citywide crime, but for many colleagues and I, crime has increased in our districts and we have hot pockets of crime around gangs and guns and drugs,” said Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx city council member who chaired the Public Safety Committee.
Gibson was speaking in April 2014, just a few months into de Blasio’s first term. Her demand was simple: the NYPD, already with a uniformed force of about 35,000 — by far the nation’s largest — should hire one thousand more police officers. Her concerns over crime spikes would prove unfounded: New York City would experience a record low number of murders in 2014, with the murder and overall crime rate remaining exceedingly low in subsequent years.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, the city council speaker at the time, prioritized the demand, and it was backed up by the overwhelmingly Democratic body, from the progressives to the moderates to the few Republicans who always cried out for bigger police budgets.
It wasn’t just crime control on the council members’ minds. Some lawmakers saw adding police as a way to cut down on the department’s growing overtime budget.
Others believed adding police could send more officers on foot into communities to establish relationships with residents — a model of “community policing” that had been tried in New York before and taken on vague forms in other municipalities, with varying success.
De Blasio and Bratton actually shot down the request for more cops — initially, at least. The mayor argued it would cost too much money. Bratton agreed, until the idea of swelling his paramilitary grew too alluring. By September 2014, he was boxing de Blasio in by embracing the addition of one thousand police officers.
In 2015, the City Council returned, newly emboldened, to force de Blasio’s hand and hire a thousand more police officers. This time, de Blasio was feeling more pressure to placate police unions, who had been furiously opposed to him ever since he dared to express sorrow for Eric Garner’s death and acknowledge the reality of racially biased policing. After the assassination of two officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, at the end of 2014, police turned their backs en masse on de Blasio at both officers’ funerals.
“In order for NYPD to continue to keep New Yorkers safe while also implementing new reforms and initiatives we need to increase the overall headcount of the department,” Mark-Viverito, the council speaker, said in April 2015.
This time, de Blasio caved. Eager to please both the council members and his restive police department, he agreed to the addition of just under 1,300 new police officers, beyond even what the Council asked for.
De Blasio argued the new officers could be used for a community policing initiative, with designated neighborhood officers to walk the beat and interact with residents. For black and brown New Yorkers who have been harassed by police under both Bloomberg and de Blasio, a bigger department brought little comfort.
The agreement came in the new city budget, adopted that June. Out of the fifty-one council members, just a single lawmaker, Inez Barron of Brooklyn, voted against the budget, calling the decision to add more police a “fatal flaw.”
Among those who supported the budget were leading progressives like Williams and Brad Lander, now a top candidate for city comptroller and an outspoken supporter of Black Lives Matter, and Corey Johnson, who is the current council speaker and a leading candidate for mayor next year. Johnson has never quite given up his love affair with increasing the NYPD’s headcount: in 2018, he said he would try to hire even more police to bolster de Blasio’s community policing initiative.
It’s a reminder that Johnson, who is vying for the support of leftist organizations by rejecting real estate money, is not the mayoral candidate to radically restructure the NYPD. But who is? His rival, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, is a former police captain who has not supported calls to reduce the NYPD’s budget. Another top candidate, city comptroller Scott Stringer, has never publicly committed to slashing police headcount either.
Likely, change will have to come from below, with mass protests pushing city council members to act, either pressuring de Blasio or his successor to do far more. Johnson is now backing a bill to criminalize the type of chokehold maneuver that killed Eric Garner; de Blasio is opposed to the legislation.
It will be up to the next generation of city council members — term limits arrive next year — to learn from the sins of their predecessors. Long-lasting reform won’t come with body cameras or another round of retraining. It certainly won’t come from adding police. Demilitarizing the NYPD, shrinking headcount, and increasing the number of social workers and mental health professionals will help begin to turn the tide against police brutality. Nothing else will.