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Police Defunding Battle Heats Up at City Hall

Issue 256

Pat Rough Jun 12

Budget season is underway at City Hall and a bloody season of discontent rages in the streets.

Months under coronavirus shutdown have drained New York’s coffers and the city faces its worst budget shortfall since President Ford told it to go to hell.

With a $9 billion deficit on their hands, lawmakers are facing grievous decisions over what is and what isn’t worth saving. The task is not one of simple arithmetic but strikes at the heart of what we value as a city and who we are, what is worth preserving and what is worth abandoning.

The NYPD’s violent assaults on peaceful protesters have long-time criminal justice reformers arguing that it’s the cops for once who should face austerity.

As it stands now, under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan, the Police Department will receive the most minor of abrasions, while the areas of education, health and human services, sanitation and parks, are set to be lacerated.

But if the NYPD is making a case for why its $6 billion annual budget deserves to be spared as the rest of the city government is carved to the bone, it has a strange way of going about it: clubbing peaceful Justice for George Floyd demonstrators, driving SUVs into them, meeting anti-police brutality rallies with unceremonious brutality.

The violence has underscored the failure of years of “community policing” initiatives intended to “restore trust” between city residents and law enforcement. These initiatives were launched by the de Blasio administration in the wake of the stop-and-frisk era when hundreds of thousands of young blacks and Latinos per year were targeted by the NYPD without probable cause.

“We’ve been told for five years, ‘Don’t worry. We’re gonna fix policing’” Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, tells The Indypendent. “‘We’re gonna give them some implicit bias training. We’re gonna give them some police-community encounter sessions. We’re gonna get them to wear body cameras. We’re gonna create a civilian review board.’ And this made absolutely no difference. The problem remains because the problem can’t be fixed through those kinds of superficial, procedural reforms. The problem is a massive problem of over-policing.”

The NYPD’s violent assaults on peaceful protesters, circulated widely on social media, have long-time criminal justice reformers arguing that it’s the cops for once who should face austerity so that New Yorkers hit with illness, job loss, months of isolation, fear and privation, might not see the basic services they rely on vanquished.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Speaker Cory Johnson, both of whom will be running to replace de Blasio in 2021, have taken up the call to defund the Police Department

As The Indy goes to press, the mayor has begun to hedge, saying he supported cuts to the police budget but refused to put a number on the amount. He has previously sought a $640 million reduction to the Education Department’s budget and $23.8 million from the NYPD’s.

“For folks who say ‘defund the police,’ I would say that is not the way forward,” de Blasio said during an early June press briefing.

During de Blasio’s six years in office, the NYPD’s budget has ballooned by $1.1 billion. In 2015, the council approved the hiring of an additional 1,297 officers with the expectation that the new hires would reduce overtime costs and help implement the mayor’s new community policing initiatives. As a trade-off, additional spending was allotted to the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which serves 75,000 young New Yorkers.

Since then, NYPD overtime spending has risen by $150 million over 2014 levels to nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars, while the $124-million youth jobs program is now on the chopping block.

“You’re saying we can’t hire no teachers, no counselors. The only thing, however, that we can add more to is hiring a class of police,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told NY1 this month, addressing the mayor.

As a councilmember, Williams voted in favor of the additional officers on the condition of more funding for SYEP.

The problem, according to Vitale and others, is the presence of police in numerous areas of social life where they do not belong. They’re in schools, enforcing subway-fare collection, they’re pounding on the doors of the mentally ill and clearing homeless encampments.

The Policing & Social Justice Project, which Vitale heads, wants to see $1 billion in cuts for the NYPD over the next four years. Such a funding reduction would bring the force’s spending levels down to those of 2014.

In a June 4 letter to the mayor, Comptroller Stringer called for cutting the NYPD’s budget even further, by $1.1 billion over the same time period, and redirecting the funds to social service agencies better suited to the tasks the NYPD has been assigned.

Robert Gangi with the Police Reform Organizing Project expressed support for the proposal, urging the removal of the NYPD’s 5,000-plus safety officers from public schools, the disbanding of vice and peddler squads and dispatching social workers and mental health professionals rather than police to respond to persons in psychological crisis. He notes that while the police force is considered “sacrosanct” by de Blasio, during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and under Mayor Michael Bloomberg after 9/11, the NYPD’s budget was also reduced.

“That’s what should happen today in the interest of justice, in the interest of fiscal responsibility,” Gangi said.

“We need to reduce the burden of policing instead of imagining that we can make them friendlier and nicer,” adds Vitale.

Such a reform would also reduce the likelihood of encounters between law enforcement and communities of color that can prove deadly at the drop of a hat.

For more on the campaign to defund the NYPD, see policingandjustice.squarespace.com and changethenypd.org.

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