Defund the Police—Movement or Folly?

By Frank Quinn

On May 14th the City Council published its report on Mayor de Blasio’s FY21 Executive Budget, announcing that “the NYPD budget has increased a minimal .07 percent.” On June 12th Council Speaker Corey Johnson joined seven other council members calling for a $1 billon cut to the NYPD budget. The eight members released a joint statement calling it “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.” During those 30 days New Yorkers experienced civil unrest, looting, and sadness initiated by the unjustifiable death of George Floyd. So as residents ponder the future of the city, how should they comprehend such a sudden and drastic reaction by elected officials?

PROTEST ON THE AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS, June 19, 2020. Photo by Shona Quinn.

By the time this article is published the city will have adopted a budget, and as of this writing NYPD spokesperson Detective Denise Moroney would only say, “We will continue to work closely with City Hall during budget discussions.” What follows are contrasting points of view on this important subject; an ongoing debate is expected.

Speaking on 710 WOR Radio, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly acknowledged the need for better screening of officers and improved contract provisions allowing swift termination for misconduct. But he was unequivocal in his response to the $1 billion reduction, saying it “made no sense,” lacked any analysis, and would “punish” New York because a substantial reduction of police officers would negatively impact poor communities.

In contrast, the night before the council members’ announcement, the Village Independent Democrats met to review their resolution supporting the $1 billion cut. President David Siffert spoke for the group saying, “At a time when our city’s budget is stretched beyond its breaking point, it makes no sense to slash funding for education, youth employment, and other necessary services while keeping the NYPD budget intact. In the near-term, cutting $1B (or 17 percent of the NYPD budget) is necessary to preserve programs and services that invest in communities. In the longer-term, we must reimagine how best to accomplish the necessary tasks we assign to NYPD.”

Tamara Lashchyk is an entrepreneur and the Republican candidate for New York State Assembly District 66. After a 26- year career on Wall Street she thinks about the city in context of how big organizations operate. She’s not supportive of cutting the police budget, especially at a time when the city is experiencing civil unrest. And cutting any budget requires a plan, which should be part of the process of shifting funds toward investment in social programs in order to create reform. “Cutting the police budget should be a thoughtful, lucid decision based on proper analysis. And however reform is achieved you must empower the police. I think the NYPD has been disempowered by the de Blasio administration, and that’s not constructive.” She recalls the problems her family encountered at their East Village apartment during her childhood, and the evolution since that time when it was really unsafe. Although she feels the approach seemed too extreme at times, over her lifetime she witnessed the city become a desirable place to live. “There are politicians who look at the police budget in a vacuum and just bemoan how big it is, but police are a thin blue line between civilized society and chaos. Reducing the police force can lead to increased crime, particularly in lower income neighborhoods, so I don’t support cutting the budget to satisfy the climate of the moment.”

Reform is good, and change is necessary for anything to improve. The stakes are high, and it requires effort to understand the nuances and complexity of shifting resources away from police in favor of alternative solutions.

In a lengthy interview with the Washington Post, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, describes the current debate over police funding as an evolving set of ideas and demands spurred by activists and movement leaders rather than coming from academic research. “People should be thinking about defunding the police as both a process and an outcome. The process is empowering local communities to come to the table with city council members to redefine what police do, which leads to an outcome, which is—they do less of what they’ve been doing.” He notes there are many reform-minded police chiefs who agree that police do too much. But citing the bureaucracy of unionized police organizations, he insists reform must come from legislative bodies that govern police agencies. Asking the police to reform themselves “is as unhelpful as asking fossil fuel industry leaders to solve the climate change crisis.”

Eliza Orlins, a veteran New York City public defender and current candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, describes the challenge of working in a system that criminalizes substance use disorder and conditions of poverty. She believes the criminal legal system should focus on perpetrators of real harm and not petty crimes, thereby removing productive citizens from society. “As a public defender for over a decade I’ve seen too many instances where a client of mine was in the throes of a serious mental health crisis, and having an armed police officer show up escalates the situation. The police should not be performing functions that are never improved by someone who shows up carrying a gun. We over-rely on law enforcement and turn to police in situations where their involvement is not only unnecessary but actually makes things worse. Mental health and social work functions should be left to people who are professionals in those fields.”

How should New York reform the process of determining if police are needed or different responders are preferable? Investing in communities is imperative, but what’s the plan for shifting $1 billion dollars away from the NYPD and the analysis to support it? It’s reasonable to feel that the collective response from government and community leaders is that they’re not sure how to do this, because they’re still working on the plan, and they’ll get back to us with the analysis. The public is demanding it happen faster!

Frank Quinn is a media executive, parent, and musician.

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