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A budget that fails to meet the moment: NYC largely maintained the NYPD status quo

Donna Lieberman

There is tremendous momentum to radically transform how we think about public safety and to re-examine policing in America. Disappointingly, the New York City Council just voted to squander this opportunity by approving a budget that allows the NYPD to conduct business as usual.

For many people around the country, the horrific police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, on the heels of the homicide of Ahmaud Arbery, made the everyday reality of our country’s deep-seated racism inescapable. People who never quite got it before now understand why we have to repeat — and believe — Black Lives Matter.

Front-and-center in this national conversation is the need for a radical reimagining of our police departments — including, and especially, the nation’s single largest police force.

Just in case anyone still doesn’t get it, the NYPD’s own behavior in recent weeks is Exhibit A for why we need more than just reforms.

We have all seen the viral videos of officers driving into protesters, shoving defenseless demonstrators to the pavement, unmasking them and shooting pepper spray into their eyes, beating people with batons for being out past curfew, and trapping protesters before unleashing inescapable waves of tear gas. The aggression continued this weekend, when NYPD officers violently arrested and pepper sprayed peaceful demonstrators at the Queer Liberation March.

If nothing else, the NYPD’s impunity in using force on such a dramatic scale makes the case for a massive reduction in the department’s footprint.

Through it all, Mayor de Blasio has, astoundingly, defended officers’ behavior and praised their “restraint.” Meanwhile, police union leaders have declared “war” on the people they are supposed to protect and serve.

In the face of all this, the City Council approved a budget after just one virtual hearing and no public transparency — and it utterly misses the mark. The mayor claims the budget cuts the NYPD’s funding by $1 billion. But as Speaker Corey Johnson himself admitted, it does no such thing. The budget “cuts” are largely pretense, designed to feign action without making any meaningful changes to reduce police violence and the excessive intrusion of police and police tactics into the lives of black and brown New Yorkers.

A big chunk of the $1 billion in “cuts” comes from an accounting trick: moving school safety officers, who are currently part of the NYPD, to the Department of Education. This is in no way a reallocation of resources. The DOE will not reclaim those funds for teaching and learning.

If the city were serious about ending the policies and practices that criminalize school discipline, they’d be talking about a plan to reduce the number of school safety officers. They’d be talking about how to do away with invasive and humiliating metal detector scans. They’d be investing in counselors, therapists and school nurses, at least attempting to meet kids’ needs in the middle of a traumatizing pandemic.

The budget also includes a supposed $500 million cut to the NYPD’s capital budget for things like building renovations and vehicles. But this is just more fuzzy math. The capital budget is not even counted in NYPD’s $6 billion in expenses; most capital spending is funded through bond sales, not out of the city’s existing coffers. And reallocating this future money won’t stop a single unnecessary interaction between police and black New Yorkers.

If the mayor were serious about cutting this budget, he would be putting an end to the NYPD’s use of invasive and expensive surveillance equipment to spy on New Yorkers.

De Blasio claims the NYPD will crack down on overtime pay, but the NYPD has made these sorts of promises before and broken them. If the mayor were serious about reducing overtime, he would be abandoning broken windows policing. He would be committing to end the over-policing of peaceful demonstrations.

The mayor and the Council further agreed to cancel a July class of roughly 1,100 police recruits. This might minimally shrink the NYPD’s headcount, but only temporarily, as an October class is still slated to go forward.

Worst of all, none of this meaningfully limits the odds that New Yorkers will have harmful interactions with police. By failing to meaningfully reduce the NYPD’s headcount, its resources, or its role in New Yorkers’ lives, the budget says loud and clear: At a time when social services are being slashed left and right, the NYPD is untouchable.

Instead of beginning the process of defunding an unaccountable and lawless institution, city leaders voted to maintain a status quo that devalues and decimates black lives. But both the NYPD and the City Council are ultimately accountable to the people of New York. And we will not forget how our leaders failed to meet the call of this moment.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News


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