Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign masterfully produced the impression that he would create sweeping police reform in response to the movement against stop-and-frisk. A careful review of his statements, however, shows that he had a more nuanced position than someone like John Liu, who called for a blanket ban on the practice. In fact, de Blasio made it clear that he favored the neoconservative “broken windows” policing philosophy initiated under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that underlay many of those stops.
Therefore, it should come as little surprise that reforms in the NYPD have been thin at best, even in the wake of the death of Eric Garner and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. There has been a significant reduction in stop-and-frisk activity, but this began even before he took office and was driven by the outpouring of opposition in communities of color and a successful federal lawsuit.
The appointment of William Bratton as police commissioner was the first indication that change would be slow to come. Bratton, an architect of broken windows policing, maintained an adherence to that philosophy even as the NYPD dialed back in a few areas such as arrests for low-level marijuana possession. Contacts between the police and the public have declined somewhat, but the starkly racialized nature of those contacts remains in place. As the Police Reform Organizing Project has shown in its Court Monitoring Project, the vast majority of people appearing at arraignments and receiving summonses are Black and Latino.
In the wake of Garner’s death, there was hope that some reforms would be made in overly aggressive policing. De Blasio and Bratton announced new training, of dubious value, but continued to defend the order maintenance policing orientation that contributed to Garner’s death. What’s worse is that instead of reducing the burden of policing, de Blasio actually agreed to significantly expand the number of police by 1,300 officers. Politically, de Blasio is intent on suppressing crime and disorder in keeping with the city’s overall renaissance and accompanying real estate boom and seems willing to invest more resources and power in the police to achieve it. This can be seen most clearly in recent NYPD efforts to drive homeless people out of public places in areas like East Harlem, where the NYCLU is now suing them for illegally destroying people’s medications, IDs and personal property.
One area that has shown some improvement is the policing of protests. Early climate change demos were treated much better than under the previous two mayors and the early Black Lives Matter protests generally were as well. Since then, things have become a bit more restrictive again, and participants at some events, like Critical Mass, continue to face harassment. There are also concerns about a more militarized response from the new Strategic Response Group, which also has counter-terrorism duties as opposed to the older borough-based Task Force units.
As for the future, the best hope lies in expanding the mayor’s funding of programs that could reduce the need for police. Community-based violence intervention programs, mental health services and supportive housing could contribute to a safer city without the use of police. Activists need to push for more of these alternatives as well as demands to shrink the criminal justice apparatus to pay for it. New Yorkers should look to the example of the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles, which recently called for diverting 1 percent of all criminal justice spending in L.A. County — that’s $100 million — to programs for youth, including jobs, youth centers and violence intervention workers. Real police reform would involve even more such shifting of resources in a host of areas, such as fewer police in schools, dialing back the war on drugs and ending the punitive policing of homeless people.
Alex S. Vitale is an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and senior adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project
By Leonie Haimson