NYPD officers at a precinct (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)
While there's widespread agreement today about the need to change or improve policing in our country, we fall far short of a consensus about the particular reforms needed. Should the changes leave the basic institutions of policing intact or should they be far-reaching? Should we dismantle current law enforcement structures and replace them with new entities? Or more generously fund existing agencies for promoting safety and justice?
Advocates' analysis is that abusive practices, from egregious incidents of brutality to bogus arrests backed up by "testilying" to daily disrespect and indignities, are so deeply entrenched and long-standing (reaching back to the founding of police departments in the U.S. in the 19th century), that only measures that are radical -- in that they address the roots of the problem -- will suffice to deliver justice.
Most police departments have unchecked power, and as the old shibboleth has it: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most politicians, even self-identified progressives like Bill de Blasio, will not take meaningful steps to curb the abuses or to sanction many officers whose violence and lawlessness are undeniable, documented by an unending series of hard-to-watch videos.
After Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, the movement promoting fundamental change literally swept the country, with street demonstrations and urgent calls for action taking place in virtually every sizable U.S. city, as well as many other jurisdictions. These activities took place under various banners, most often "Black Lives Matter" or "Defund The Police," or both slogans simultaneously. Over time "Black Lives Matter" has grown more popular with a broad range of constituencies. Many mainstream politicians, for example, subscribe to it, adopting the rallying cry and authorizing murals attesting to their support.
"Defund The Police," however, remains highly controversial amongst the public and with numerous public figures, including Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who express discomfort or outright opposition. Biden, in fact, has actually called for increased funding for police.
People's discomfort and opposition are based on their somewhat understandable interpretation that the slogan means the expeditious cutting of all monies for, and the disbanding entirely of, police forces. Also, many Americans think of public safety in terms of what police do or don’t do. Alternative means of curtailing crime and disorder are rarely part of the public discourse, and the fact that many calling to defund the police mean to shift significant sums away from policing and toward social services is often not understood or acknowledged.
Here's what PROP -- the Police Reform Organizing Project, a nonprofit that I run -- means by Defund The NYPD. Our guiding operating principle is to sharply curtail police power, presence, and personnel, mainly because such steps will significantly reduce the department's ability to carry out, and to get away with, abusive and racist practices. Also, through the resulting savings, these measures will make available additional resources to fund effective and benign alternative approaches.
Specific examples include:
Transfer traffic enforcement to another government agency. In 2019, NYPD officers issued nearly 1 million traffic summonses -- why do we need an officer with a gun to pull someone over who's driving a car with a broken taillight?
Disband NYPD units that are notorious for violating the rights and well-being of vulnerable constituencies. Eliminated units would include the nuisance abatement, vice, and peddlers squads.
Have mental health professionals be the first responders to emergencies involving people in psychiatric crises. Now 911 dispatchers have virtually only one option: to send officers, whose instincts and inclinations are often to use force to resolve problematic situations, an approach that far too often results in harm or even death for the New Yorker in emotional distress.
Remove from public schools all NYPD personnel who now outnumber social workers in the system. Let's return responsibility for school safety to educators who can still call on the police in exceptional circumstances.
Additionally, as part of an effort to curb police abuses, New York City should establish an independent prosecutor's office whose sole purpose would be to investigate and prosecute when warranted all alleged acts of police brutality, even when the victim was armed or did not die.
New York City spends over $10 billion annually on its law enforcement apparatus, the bulk of it going to the NYPD, whose practices drive the entire big, bloated system. Our proposed measures would cut expenditures by several billions, funds government could allocate to programs that support the communities most compromised by biased police tactics, for instance: real affordable housing to address our dire homeless problem; smaller school classes that studies show improve academic outcomes for all children across race and class lines; expanded health and mental health services; Cure Violence programs employing credible messengers who divert neighborhood youth from anti-social to productive activities; and public works projects providing jobs and job training to unemployed New Yorkers.
This agenda, manageable and sensible, would go a long way toward eliminating the severe hardships inflicted on vulnerable New Yorkers by our so-called justice system. Perhaps to enhance its political viability, we should consider employing different slogans from Defund The Police, such as: People Before Police; Government Should Help People, Not Hurt Them; or Cut Cops, Build Communities. Maybe they're not as dramatic or pithy as Defund The Police, but they more accurately reflect our worthy goal of creating a just, safe, and inclusive city for all New Yorkers.