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How Do Black Lawmakers and Activists View ‘Defunding the NYPD’? It’s Complicated


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Protesters demanded a $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget (photo: @VOCALNewYork)


The New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio crafted an $88.2 billion budget for the current fiscal year in what was one of the most contentious budget negotiations in years, coming amid a pandemic-caused recession and a resurgent racial justice movement that sought to “Defund the NYPD” and redirect some of its massive resources to social services in communities of color. But the budget process showed major divisions in the City Council, where several of the notable ‘yes’ votes on the agreement that was ultimately reached came from Black Council members who said that significantly cutting police funding would hurt their communities rather than advance the cause of racial equity.

Those members had greatly influenced the shape of the deal, as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is white, explained the night of the budget vote. Some of them said the ‘Defund’ movement was being led by people, and supported by Council members, who didn’t live in their districts and were imposing a political agenda that would threaten public safety in communities of color. But those assertions, like others made during the heated debate leading up to the July 1 budget adoption, belied a more complicated reality – two Black Council members, representing similar communities, voted against the budget because it failed to significantly cut the police budget; and the movement has been led by Black activists, some of whom have been making similar demands for decades and who said the Council members who voted in support did not represent the spectrum of opinions of their constituents of color.

“Black communities, like any neighborhood, are very complex places and so to make this comment, or to make this assertion that this is what Black people are calling for is not only inaccurate, it's almost absurd on some level,” said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center and a decades-long civil rights activist based in Central Brooklyn, insisting that the Council members who want more police in their neighborhoods were only representing a selective range of opinions. “I think that who they are listening to are mostly middle class people who have bought into the system of policing, who feel like they've got property to protect...but who have not fully considered what it would look like to have a fully safe and secure community without police and have not fully considered what the impact of police actually is on on safety,” he said.

An NBC/Marist poll conducted between July 6-8, after the budget was approved, found that 55% of New York City residents supported defunding the police in their community to spend more on other local services, while 34% opposed it. As part of the demand to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s roughly $6 billion annual operating budget, activists had called for removing police officers from non-law enforcement roles. Chiefly, they wanted the NYPD withdrawn from schools as well as removed from other purposes such as homelessness and mental health crisis response, and regularly raised questions about the necessary size of the police force.

That the budget would pass on time was a foregone conclusion, but it was noteworthy for the unusually high number of ‘no’ votes. Of the 51-seat City Council, which is almost entirely filled by Democrats, 17 members voted against the budget, which did eventually include some cuts to the NYPD but not anywhere near to the degree that police reform advocates had demanded. The nays included conservative Democrats and Republicans who opposed the cuts, and progressive Democrats, including members of color and white members, who felt they did not go far enough at a time when the city needed to invest in services for communities of color. Council Members Donovan Richards and Inez Barron were the two Black members to vote no, both arguing that the shifts to reinvent public safety through more community investment and less policing were not large enough.

The most significant ‘yes’ votes came from several Black Council members – Laurie Cumbo, Vanessa Gibson, Adrienne Adams, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Robert Cornegy, Mathieu Eugene, Andy King, Farah Louis, Daneek Miller, Bill Perkins, Debi Rose, and Ritchie Torres – many of whom voted for the budget saying that more drastic cuts to the police would make their communities unsafe, while acknowledging the disproportionate impact that a history of over-policing has had in those same communities and the need to reform the NYPD into a more just public service organization.

They explained that their constituents want robust and fair policing, and argued that they couldn’t decry the abject devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and in the same breath vote to eliminate a school safety force composed largely of Black women. Delaying the budget to have a more robust conversation about reenvisioning public safety investment was not an option, they said, given it would mean that city workers would go without pay and that the crucial services provided by the government would be severely disrupted at an already tumultuous time.

The city budget was passed after weeks of massive public unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The resulting national wave of protest coalesced into calls for reducing funding for police departments around the country and to reinvest in underserved communities of color that have particularly suffered during the coronavirus pandemic and from hundreds of years of racist criminal justice and other public policies. As City Council leadership entered final budget negotiations with de Blasio, it committed to key goals espoused by many activists.

“We believe that we can and should work to get to $1 billion in cuts to New York City's police spending in the Fiscal 2021 budget, an unprecedented reduction that would not only limit the scope of the NYPD, but also show our commitment towards moving away from the failed policing policies of the past,” read a joint statement on June 12 from Council Speaker Johnson, members of the Council budget negotiating team, and the co-chairs of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.

But the final budget agreement fell far short of that goal, and for several complicated reasons that included hesitation from Black Council members.

The Council and de Blasio, who was opposed to a large reduction in police funding, found middle ground by directly cutting planned NYPD operational spending by slightly under $500 million – which is mostly (about $335 million) in reduced overtime spending and a reduction in the department’s headcount – while shifting other costs. De Blasio touted what he called a $1 billion shift, though much of his calculation included changes in planned capital expenses, like on a new police precinct, that were not part of activists’ demands. The mayor, whose claim was refuted by Council Speaker Johnson almost immediately after it was made, also included the restoration of school safety from the NYPD’s jurisdiction back to the Department of Education, a process that isn’t going to be completed in the current fiscal year and is part of a to-be-determined process of retraining toward a less punitive approach. Budget watchdogs also say that based on recent trends the reduced overtime expense projection is unrealistic.

Hanging over and complicating the discussion, gun violence spiked in the weeks before and after the budget passed. To the critics of ‘defunding the NYPD’ it’s proof positive that more policing -- and not ‘arbitrarily’ targeting police resources - is the answer to ensuring public safety. To reform advocates, it’s simply more evidence that police are not the solution since the strength of the police force hadn’t changed at all during the first half of the year and was set for only modest adjustments thereafter. The roughly 36,000-strong uniformed force has not been significantly shrunk, though the budget deal will in the course of the new fiscal year mean a reduction of the NYPD’s headcount totalling 1,163 officers, achieved through attrition and by cancelling two cadet classes.

For activists, the budget negotiation unfolding amid a multi-billion-dollar deficit and protests against police racism presented an opportune moment to reimagine the police’s role in public safety. Time and again, they have pointed out how the involvement of police in issues outside of violent crime can be detrimental, and too often deadly, whether it’s in the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness or escalating those in mental health crisis, or, more recently, in the racially disparate enforcement of social distancing rules early during the pandemic. They wanted the Council to drive a harder bargain, particularly as the mayor was slashing services to the city’s most vulnerable.

To some degree, the budget debate seemed to become about how much to cut and not about why, said City Council Member Adrienne Adams, a Queens Democrat who voted for the budget, in a phone interview. “That became the argument. We need to do more, we need to do less, or we don't need to touch the NYPD at all,” she said, “instead of, what does your district look like? What are the relationships between police and your constituents? That is the conversation that we didn't have. I think that was the missing piece in our negotiations. We only dealt with the finite amount of the budget cut instead of taking a look at the impact of policing and in some cases over-policing in some neighborhoods.”

She added, “What a lot of us recognized was that in some areas of New York City, shooting and criminal activity were on the rise and the hashtag, Defund the NYPD, doesn’t speak to that tragedy or to the residents who are affected by it.”

Anthonine Pierre, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition group, said that is a flawed view of the movement. “We have these elected officials who are visible leaders who are conflating all of the different things that Black people want, the diversity of Black communities, into their own political perspective. And that's dangerous for Black folks who don't necessarily agree with these Council members,” she added.

In an interview, Council Member Laurie Cumbo, a Brooklyn Democrat who is majority leader of the body and a close ally of Speaker Johnson, offered a range of justifications for her vote in favor of passing the budget. Though she said the members of color were generally in agreement about the premise behind ‘Defund the NYPD’ to redirect funds to community-based organizations, she couched her argument in practicality more than politics, saying a racist policing system could not be overhauled in a matter of weeks without first proposing a viable, well-thought out alternative. “It's not sexy to talk about hiring, training, staffing, integrating a new public safety program...That's not hashtagable,” she said. The activists who demanded defunding proposed an arbitrary funding cut, she argued, which did nothing to ease the fears about what would replace the police.

In some ways, the debate has been personal for her. As the mother of a three-year-old, she was particularly pained by the tragic shooting death of a one-year-old in Brooklyn a few weeks after the budget vote. It’s the type of incident that she worried could occur more often if the NYPD had been significantly defunded. “I couldn't accept my son being shot and killed as part of this purging process, this destructive process to take us to a new land and a new place,” she said, wondering how and which community-based organizations could take up the role that police play. “When do you decide that you need police presence in some of these matters such as sexual assault, such as rape, such as domestic violence, such as homelessness, all of these very intricate things?” she said.

She was particularly opposed to the proposal to eliminate school safety agents without a replacement plan. “Are we going to replace them with 5,300 guidance counselors? That would be great...Do we have the time and the capacity to recruit 5,300 guidance counselors?...Nobody wants to talk about that.”

Activists also took the fight for funding cuts to her doorstep. Among them was Jabari Brisport, a state Senate candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Going further than other activists, DSA had called for slashing $3 billion from the NYPD, about half its operating budget.

Though Cumbo did not directly mention DSA, she did launch into a lengthy tirade about “colonization” and what her colleague, Council Member Robert Cornegy, called “political gentrification.” Those phrases were quoted in a recent New York Times article on the divide among Black lawmakers about defunding the NYPD. In the interview with Gotham Gazette, and in a statement to constituents after that article was published, Cumbo sought to provide more context about her comments. She explained her belief that white progressive activists (read: DSA) newly arriving in gentrifying neighborhoods have adopted support for the Black Lives Matter and ‘Defund the NYPD’ as a means to building political power. She said their preferred candidates, like Brisport, who she called out specifically, are unlikely to represent the interests of Black and brown communities over time. “It's my projection that those initial Black candidates that were initially elected are not going to go the distance,” she said of their likelihood to get the things they’re espousing done when in office.

But that criticism conflates ‘Defund the NYPD’ with white progressive activism while ignoring the decades-long activism of Black-led organizations and protest movements, their intersection, and the newer Black leaders of reform activism. The argument was similarly employed by other Council members, who claimed that white progressive activists and lawmakers were attempting to supplant their voices in an issue that would affect Black and brown lives. They also seemed to ignore that fellow Black Council members voted (with some Latino and white members) against the budget.

Council Member Richards, a Queens Democrat who chairs the public safety committee, which has oversight over the NYPD, was one of two Black members who voted against the budget, though he recognized why his colleagues voted for it. “There's no contradiction in saying you need reform and you need service,” he said of their explanations.

But he echoed Council Member Adams in noting that the discussion of the police’s role in public safety fell by the wayside. “I think it's time to have that conversation around what investment looks like in these communities. Why aren't there community centers in these places? Why haven't there been investments in our small businesses? Why is housing quality so poor?...This is about access and opportunity. If you want to take a gun out of somebody's hand, you have to give them opportunity.”

Council Member Barron, a Democrat from Brooklyn, was the other Black member to oppose the budget. Barron is known for casting dissenting votes, often the sole one on the left of an issue, often around police reform. “The policing that is going on specially in our neighborhoods, that is being executed by the NYPD has historically targeted Blacks and Latinos for undue arrest and harassment,” she said. “And increasing the numbers of police does not in fact reduce crime. If that was the case, there should have been no increase in any type of crime since January, because there's been no reduction in police since January.”

Instead, she wanted to see aggressive investment in anti-poverty programs and jobs and workforce development. Rather than police, public safety should be promoted through community outreach and particularly by increasing funding to “violence interrupters” who seek to preempt crime among at-risk youth. “Those are the kinds of models that’ve been proven to be effective,” she said.

Even with the budget behind them, activists have not given up on the defunding debate. It’ll carry through to the next budget, they say, which will be due shortly after a primary election that will determine who becomes the next mayor of New York City.

Brooklyn Movement Center’s Griffith said the Council showed a failure of imagination and missed a golden opportunity to build a new system of public safety. “They're refusing to go out there and imagine and lay out for people a different vision of what is possible because one thing we do know is that through stop-and-frisk, through broken windows policing, through the war on drugs, we know that this idea of throwing police at a problem has not worked,” he said.

For activists like Griffith, piecemeal reforms at this stage are insufficient. Successive mayoral administrations, police commissioners and particularly police unions have always resisted reform. Just recently, unions sued to stop the release of officer disciplinary recommendations after a law shielding them was repealed. “So when you've got a system that is so resistant to change on any level, then you go to the place where you say, ‘Hmm, maybe we need to dismantle this system and rebuild a new one,” Griffith said.

CPR’s Pierre said the debate about eliminating police presence from schools became too simplistic, as Council Members sought to protect the majority Black school safety agents. “It's a narrow and near-sighted understanding of what Black communities are going through,” she said. “If we can't provide for all Black communities, then we're picking and deciding who can be saved right now.”

Pierre also criticized the accusation that Defund the NYPD has been coopted by white voices. “They're playing sort of a sneaky game of trying to discredit the entire Defund movement,” she said, noting that Cumbo’s disagreement seems to stem more from her animosity towards Brisport. “To conflate a political fight with a fight that very deeply affects and governs the lives of Black New Yorkers is irresponsible,” she said

During the budget process, when Cumbo and others were raising questions about who was leading the Defund movement, Crystal Hudson, a candidate for City Council who was formerly Cumbo’s chief of operations, took to Twitter to name the many Black activists and organizations who were on the front lines. “I think that there is definitely a misrepresentation of the work and of the advocacy and the activism that's been happening,” she said in a phone interview.

“Defunding the police does not mean that communities become any less safe,” she added. “Defunding the police means that we're investing in the social services needed to keep our communities safe. It means that we're deepening our investment in Cure Violence programs and adapting that model as our system of community policing.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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