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Effort to 'Defund the NYPD' Appears Stalled Ahead of De Blasio's Final Budget


de Blasio NYPD

De Blasio and the NYPD (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Even though cutting NYPD funding has become a popular position among many candidates running for mayor, City Council, and other offices this year, the city’s current leadership seems unlikely to embrace any significant cuts to the police department in the upcoming budget amid a sustained increase in gun violence and a glut of federal funding.

“The voters of this city overwhelmingly, I'm convinced, want a balance. They want reform. They want non-discriminatory policing. They want respectful policing, but they also believe the NYPD has a crucial role to play in this city protecting all of us,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a May 27 news conference, when asked if Democratic voters are beginning to reject the ‘defund the NYPD’ movement. “That's the balance I think people are looking for.”

Last year, as the pandemic raged and Black Lives Matter protests subsumed the city in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council led by Speaker Corey Johnson embraced, to varying degrees, demands to reduce police funding and redirect those resources to underfunded community programs. Together, they announced an agreement to make cuts to the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget, with the mayor painting it as a $1 billion cut that was in actuality far more limited, as Johnson quickly noted in dispute. Outside of the operating budget, there’s another $5.3 billion in additional spending that goes towards fringe benefits, debt service, and other spending for the department, bringing total actual NYPD expenditures to more than $11 billion annually. The NYPD is also responsible for a large share of legal settlements paid out by the city, costing $205 million in the 2020 fiscal year. 

But the deal left virtually everyone dissatisfied. Police reform activists called it insufficient and hollow, particularly as it promised nearly $300 million in cuts to overtime spending, which the department has notoriously failed to control over the years, and included the eventual but unachieved shifting of school safety agents to the Department of Education, as well as capital funding cuts that became temporary.

Johnson himself admitted he wasn’t happy with what the Council delivered and had wanted deeper cuts, though he said he was deferring to members of color who had urged him to moderate the ‘defunding’ push. “To everyone who is disappointed that we did not go farther, I want to be very honest and candid, I am disappointed as well,” he said at the time.

The extremely contentious process that included an encampment near City Hall and vandalism at Johnson’s boyfriend’s apartment, as well as stark warnings from conservatives about the potential for crime increases, appeared to take a major toll on Johnson and contribute to his decision not to run for mayor. He’s now running for city comptroller, however.

The budget deal that was reached and approved by the Council just after the July 1 deadline for a new city spending plan created stark divisions in the 51-seat Council, which has only 3 Republicans. Several Democratic Council members of color, including close Johnson ally and Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, opposed deeper cuts, arguing that their communities demanded more police presence, not less, but with more equity and accountability. In the end, 17 members ended up voting against the final package, including moderate members who protested the cuts and progressive members who voted no because they saw the cuts as insufficient. It was the largest number of no votes on a city budget in at least the last two decades.

That budget agreement came as gun violence in the city had already increased amid the pandemic and the shootings and murders have only risen in the nearly year since. Overall, major crime has fallen slightly this year, by 1.77% through May 30, compared to the same period last year. But there have been concerning increases. Homicides are up 17.7% from last year, shootings are up 77% this year, felony assaults are up 8%, car thefts are up 24.8%, and hate crimes are up a whopping 104.3%. Some of the numbers are far more stark when compared with the same period in 2019. Major crimes are down 2.62% through May of this year compared to through May of 2019, but murders are up by 47.9% and shootings are up 107.4%. Car thefts are up 104.6% and hate crimes are up 38.2%.

This year, there seems to be no clamor among City Council members to make major, if any, reductions to the NYPD budget and any push for cuts may leapfrog to next year, as a new mayor and City Council class take office. Candidates up and down the ballot have expressed support for and opposition to cutting the police department budget.

In the Democratic primary for mayor, several leading candidates like Dianne Morales, Maya Wiley, Scott Stringer, and Shaun Donovan have proposed cutting NYPD funding from between $1 billion to $3 billion either immediately or over several years, though none but Morales has embraced the ‘defund’ slogan. More moderate candidates like Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, and Kathryn Garcia have expressed opposition to decreasing NYPD funding and Yang has even said he would hire more police officers. There are currently 34,994 uniformed officers and another 17,831 civilian employees of the NYPD, and personnel is by far the largest share of the department’s budget.

When the budget for the 2020 fiscal year was adopted in June 2019, the NYPD was funded at $5.3 billion for operating expenses. By the time the budget was modified that November, estimated operating costs of policing had risen to $5.82 billion.

The 2021 fiscal year budget, adopted July 1, 2020, allocated $4.9 billion for operating expenses to the NYPD, in effect cutting more than $865 million compared to the modified budget of the previous year (the remaining cuts that were part of the $1 billion came from fringe benefit spending). By November, it was modified to $5.35 billion, effectively bringing police funding back to the levels from two years ago, before ‘defund the NYPD’ was a common refrain. 

Mayor de Blasio’s executive budget proposal puts NYPD funding at $5.13 billion for the 2022 fiscal year, roughly $230 million more than the budget that was adopted last year for this fiscal year, though it will likely increase as is the case each year. (It revised the estimated NYPD operating spending in the current fiscal year down to $5.08 billion, lower than the projection in the November modification). 

Separately, the budget also includes increased funding for non-police mental health crisis response teams, a program that is being expanded citywide from the current pilot in three precincts at a cost of $112 million but isn’t being run through the police department. The city is also adding new mobile treatments teams for $23 million to respond to non-violent mental health calls. There’s also a spate of funding for other crime-prevention initiatives including $27 million for Cure Violence intervention programs, $6 million for an at-risk youth mentorship program, $7 million to expand the city’s Saturday Night Lights basketball program, and $1.3 million for a Joint Force to End Gun Violence.

Other elements of last year’s budget agreement have also failed to come to fruition. The mayor’s recently-proposed budget restores $105 million in capital funding for a new police precinct in Southeast Queens which was meant to be diverted to a community center as part of $500 million in capital funding shifts under last year’s budget deal (both are now happening thanks to federal funds). The Independent Budget Office expects NYPD overtime costs to be $400 million more than expected by the end of the current fiscal year. And the City Council is continuing to debate whether school safety agents will indeed be shifted from NYPD oversight to the Department of Education, another promise that was made last year but is not reflected in this year’s budget. The city is also considering hiring 475 more school safety agents.

But the mayor seems content with the direction of the current budget proposal. When asked about police funding levels, the slight increase in the NYPD budget this year in his executive budget and whether the city had truly met the promise of shifting $1 from the NYPD, de Blasio insisted that the city has effectively taken steps to address the demands of activists.

At a May 25 news conference, he explained, “Some functions were moved to other agencies, civilian agencies that we thought made more sense. We've continued to do that, for example, with the crisis calls, the mental health calls, where there's no violence involved, having those handled by civilians, social workers, health care professionals, not police officers. That kind of effort makes a lot of sense. Of course, it requires less from NYPD and more from the other agencies. So, that happened, that continues to happen. The size of the police force was brought down to about 35,000. I think that's the right level. That happened, that continues to happen. We're making investments in young people and those investments, Summer Youth Employment, the efforts to help young people with social emotional learning, all these investments are the way forward. So, we've taken the spirit of the call for change. We've put it into action and we're going to keep doing it.”

When asked if Speaker Johnson was open to cutting more NYPD funding or whether he believes it is at an appropriate level, a spokesperson simply said in a statement, “The Council is in budget negotiations with the Administration.”

The speaker has expressed some support for continuing the work begun last year, though its unclear if he will take the lead. In an April video interview with Gotham Gazette discussing his run for comptroller, Johnson said, “I do think we should look at opportunities to reinvest money out of policing and into communities, social services, mental health, education. We should demilitarize the police. I think those are things that we should always be doing.”

Noting that he has to balance the varying concerns of his colleagues on the Council, he said, “This year, I think we're going to go through a similar process of having to find consensus inside the body, listening to members on all sides and figuring out what works.”

It's unclear when a city budget may be finalized, though it is likely it will be between primary day, June 22, and the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, given that Johnson and many Council members are focused on the elections. Activists who last year were protesting and keyed in on the city budget may also be more tuned into the election cycle this year, trying to get their favored candidates elected to have a better chance at achieving their goals under the next mayor and Council.

But police reform activists are still pushing this administration and Council to live up to their past promises and go further, though their cries so far appear to be falling mostly on deaf ears amid increases in violent crime. The city is also flush with federal funds, unlike last year when a $9 billion budget deficit meant that the administration was slashing spending at many city agencies. 

Nonetheless, activists, some elected officials, and many candidates for office this year want to see structural reforms to policing enacted sooner rather than later, including shifting the safety officers to the DOE, removing armed police officers from all schools and from response to homelessness and mental health crises, and curbing the use of surveillance technology and increased militarization.

“One of the challenges with this year's budget is the huge influx of federal dollars, which has allowed the mayor and many council members to dismiss the call to defund the police because ‘there's enough money to go around,’” said Keli Young, civil rights campaign coordinator at VOCAL-NY, a progressive reform group, in a text message. “This ignores the racist and classist history of policing in this country and the harm they have — and continue — to inflict on our communities. Federal dollars do not change the fact that broken policing systems are the real threat to public safety.”

Among the demands from VOCAL-NY, which is part of the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, are the creation of a non-police street response team and divesting $3 billion from the NYPD to be reinvested in community safety programs.

“It feels like the mayor has just continued to not listen to the calls that started last year to divest from the NYPD,” said Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, in a phone interview. “In order to begin to protect New Yorkers from violence from the police, from misconduct, from biased and racist policing, we've got to reduce their scope and their funding and their power and authority. There’s no indication on the mayor’s side or even from the speaker’s side that any of them are willing to do that.”

On the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, Brooklyn Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso were the only two members who marched with activists and family members of people killed by police to call for defunding the NYPD, they said in a press release. They were also two of the "no" votes from the left last year on the current budget.

Lander, who is also running for comptroller this year, took issue with the fact that the budget includes more funding for school safety agents and for mental health co-response teams, which will still involve police.

“It's obviously the young people who believe we should not have cops in their schools. That’s not solely about cutting the funding and putting it elsewhere,” he said. “That’s saying, instead of having cops in schools, we want a guidance counselor in every school which this budget does not have. And we want restorative justice programs in every school, which we do not have.”

There are, of course, members of the City Council from both parties who will push back against any new proposed funding cuts to policing. Among them is Staten Island Republican Joe Borelli.

“These are completely unserious people,” Borelli said of the ‘defund’ activists, in a phone interview. “If we did all these police reforms and defunding and it didn't correlate with an unmitigated and unprecedented rise in crime, I’d keep my mouth shut. But you'd have to be blind to not see what's going on.”

“If we defunded the Parks Department, the grass would grow higher,” he added. “This is the same thing.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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