City Council, De Blasio Clash over Plan for 1,000 More Cops

Nick Malinowski May 19, 2015

The New York City Council’s controversial push to add 1,000 new officers to the New York Police Department hit a major snag on May 7, when Mayor Bill de Blasio did not include the $100-million measure in his $78.3-billion preliminary executive budget.

The announcement could lead to a public showdown between de Blasio and his police commissioner, William Bratton, who is left in a potentially humiliating position after making the media rounds to say the new cops were pretty much a done deal.

The mayor has left the back door open for a compromise on the issue, though any movement would indicate purely political motivations now that he has laid out his own budget priorities.

“We will certainly have a thorough process with the council, and you know, we’ll be very open to finding a compromise — which is what we do in the legislative process,” De Blasio said during a press conference with reporters following his budget presentation.

Over the past several months, community activists have blasted the council’s plan with disruptions in City Council chambers, online petitions and social media campaigns targeting the proposal, which would cost the city at least $1 billion over the next decade, based on cost estimates provided by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. The activists argue that the money should be put toward community needs such as a youth jobs program, mental health care and schools. Put on the defensive, the City Council added a sentence on youth jobs to its official budget request for the new cops.

The final budget is due at the end of June and it will be interesting to see which social service cuts the generally progressive City Council puts on the chopping block in its efforts to secure the additional officers.

Bratton is scheduled to testify before the council on May 21 to defend his budget request; his last visit induced fireworks from the public and editorials detailing how a historically combative City Council seemed to be making efforts to defend, praise and placate both Bratton and the NYPD.

De Blasio said he’s happy with the NYPD’s current performance and does not see a need to increase the department’s headcount — currently 49,000, with 34,500 uniformed officers, and the largest in the United States at roughly four times the size of the Los Angeles Police Department. He generally supports the status quo in policing, bristling at most calls for reform while backing Bratton’s “broken windows” style of high-energy enforcement of low-level crimes and violations.

Reductions in stop and frisk activities — the result of a federal ruling castigating the practice as illegal — and decreases in misdemeanor arrests and summonses have freed up time for the cops already on the force to pursue other objectives, de Blasio said.

Mark-Viverito has been the loudest voice in support of hiring new officers. She, along with other council progressives, requested 1,000 new officers last year, in response to an uptick in shootings in public housing in the Bronx. At the time, that plan was swiftly swatted down by Bratton, who said it was both fiscally impossible and unnecessary from a tactical perspective.

This year, Mark-Viverito pivoted on her justification for the new officers, saying more cops were needed to keep crime down while taking a more proactive role in “community policing.” Perhaps seeking an opportunity to resolve the conflict between de Blasio and the police unions catalyzed by the shooting deaths of two officers this winter, Bratton reversed his position and came along.

What community policing actually means, however, remains a question of debate. At a recent public event Mark-Viverito declined to give her own definition of the term when asked on camera by a constituent. NYPD Deputy Susan Herman has described a pilot program for a small cadre of officers to roam around communities talking to people and charting their concerns; Assistant Chief Terrence Monahan told the City Council in March that “community policing” is what the NYPD has always done. Regardless, Bratton, not the City Council, will determine how any new officers will be deployed. Given his track record, it’s unlikely they would be ordered to spend their time getting cats out of trees and helping senior citizens cross busy streets.

Following the budget announcement, Bratton explained that new officers were required for heightened counterterrorism details to ward off attacks from the Islamic State (ISIS). Councilmember Rory Lancman, of Queens, who just last month said the new police were essential for community policing, tweeted on May 12 that now the need was in counterterrorism and crime prevention.

While Bratton’s support for more cops makes sense (de Blasio has said that every one of his commissioners asks for more resources), the council’s position is hard to understand. It seemingly conflicts with the body’s reform agenda of a reduced role for the NYPD, while the justifications for the additional expense change on a regular basis. During a recent roundtable hosted by NY1, analysts described the council’s position on the new cops as “incoherent” and “fake.”

Recently, a group of mainstream nonprofits, many aligned closely with the speaker and other members of the City Council, also came out against the proposal. So far, councilmembers have not been able to produce a single community group that supports their plan, leading some to suggest the whole thing is simply a political gift to the NYPD, which is otherwise frustrated with council’s reform agenda.

Mark-Viverito is in another highly publicized dispute with Bratton about moving a small number of criminal violations, such as drinking alcohol in public or being in a park after dark, into civil court, where they would be adjudicated in a manner similar to traffic tickets.

The apparent rift between de Blasio and his commissioner is surprising. Despite a few unsubstantiated news reports of behind-the-scenes disagreements, the two have generally put on a united public front, seeming at times to bend over backwards to support one another as critiques have come in, predictably, from both the left and the right. De Blasio has granted Bratton almost unfettered control over policing.

At a hearing before the New York State Assembly on May 7, Elizabeth Glazer, who runs the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice — the wing of his administration that oversees the police department — acknowledged that Bratton has complete control over the NYPD and that her office, tasked with departmental oversight, has an insignificant role.

Nick Malinowski is a social worker and activist based in Brooklyn.


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