New York’s City Council grew the NYPD. Now it wants to shrink it.
NEW YORK — New York’s left-leaning City Council in 2015 formed an unusual alliance with the NYPD commissioner to push Mayor Bill de Blasio to expand the largest police force in the U.S.
Five years later, the Council is tangling with the same mayor over its proposal to slash the NYPD budget by $1 billion — a nearly 20 percent cut to an institution once so revered by people in power, it was at times exempt from citywide budget rollbacks.
The change stems from the confluence of a looming fiscal crisis, a national reckoning over police brutality and a Democratic City Council whose term-limited members are regularly seeking votes for other offices from an electorate increasingly agitating for reform.
“There have always been some parts of city government that have always been sacred and the NYPD is probably top of that list,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a former City Council member, said in an interview Wednesday. “So what we’re seeing now is pretty unique in the arc of all this discussion, at least in the time I’ve been there. You had both mayors that were deferential, and a legislature that was deferential.”
The Council, which just weeks ago called for a 7 percent cut to the NYPD, has more than doubled that demand as it grapples with a critique of policing that has accelerated to the mainstream of Democratic politics after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. After some internal disputes, the members have bridged their divide to come up with a list of $1 billion in cuts to the nearly $6 billion agency budget.
Now they face a showdown with City Hall.
For starters, they are taking aim at the NYPD’s prized overtime budget, calling for a twofold reduction that members say would account for $163 million in the upcoming fiscal year: a $91 million cut and a separate cap on how much any individual officer can earn in extra pay for an additional savings of $45 million. Lawmakers are also expecting a one-time savings unrelated to police reform — $27 million due to events canceled for Covid-19, according to a Council source involved in the negotiations.
The Council proposed similar cuts in exchange for hiring 1,300 new officers in 2015, but the NYPD instead shelled out more money for overtime in the intervening years.
One of the largest single savings — roughly $300 million — would come from not replacing more than 2,300 expected departures from the force this year, according to a detailed accounting of the proposal the source shared with POLITICO.
Another $20 million would be saved by eliminating funding for teams that respond to mental health and homelessness calls, according to a second Council source briefed on the recommendations.
Shifting school safety agents from the police force to the Department of Education — a change taking place in several other American cities — would cut nearly $500 million from the NYPD budget. That proposal has rankled several union leaders who argue it would have a deleterious impact on students’ well-being.
Moving school crossing guards out of the NYPD, canceling an upcoming cadet class and some other trimmings comprise the rest of the budget proposal.
“I think the NYPD and the commissioner and the mayor … have a lot to answer for after how poorly the NYPD responded to the handling and facilitating of peaceful protests in New York City,” Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a radio interview Wednesday morning. He was referring to widespread violence that ensued at largely peaceful marches throughout the city in recent weeks.
Johnson, who is running for mayor in 2021, was among those who supported the expansion of the force in 2015, and only weeks ago put forth the more modest cut to the police budget. Amid growing anger about police abuse, he has publicly apologized for his past position.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea warned of cutting the department’s headcount. “What concerns me is a moment in time and some rash judgments stepping in and taking the place of some well thought out conversations about how to cut smartly,” he told the Associated Press in an interview this week.
De Blasio — who fancies himself a police reformer despite being at odds with the reform movement — also expressed doubt about reducing the number of uniformed officers.
Throughout his tenure, the mayor has leaned on an increase in “neighborhood policing” and the dramatic reduction in stop and frisk — a change dictated by a 2013 court ruling, not his direction — to align himself with activists who supported his campaign.
But he has ended up alienating many of them by continually defending the NYPD’s work — a high-wire act that fell apart as videos of police violence against protesters went viral in recent weeks.
His reaction to the Council’s proposal follows that trajectory.
The mayor has said he opposes removing the police presence in schools — despite Shea’s openness to the idea — and indicated a $1 billion cut would be too deep.
“I do not believe it is a good idea to reduce the budget of the agency that is here to keep us safe and the agency that is instituting neighborhood policing, which involves getting our officers to be deeply engaged with the community,” he said earlier this month, before agreeing to shift some money out of the department.
“I’ve talked to a lot of Council members. They are not forgetting that the first obligation to their constituents is safety,” he said during a separate press conference this week. “They want to address this very legitimate moment where people are calling for change, but they also want to make sure their constituents are safe.”
The Council’s proposal was not enough to win over Communities United for Police Reform, an organization that has been at odds with NYPD practices for years.
“During Mayor de Blasio’s tenure, the NYPD budget has ballooned by over $1 billion and mass criminalization and abusive policing strategies have grown — while crucial services have been cut and/or stagnant,” the group wrote in a report this week.
It called for making the agency’s notoriously opaque spending plan more transparent and laid out more than $2 billion in police-related budget cuts, including $252 million by deducting the costs of settlements and judgments related to police misconduct. The group also wants to shrink the staff rolls by more than 2,000 uniformed officers to 34,440, the size of the 2014 headcount.
Meanwhile, the push to transfer more than 5,000 school officers has sparked a rift with the union representing those workers, Teamsters Local 237, whose president wrote a letter to Council officials Wednesday saying the move “reeks of pandering and political opportunism.”
The United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators were also cool to the idea of shifting officers like Kangela Moore, who has been on the job for nearly three decades.
Moore said most of her job consists of building relationships with students, but being affiliated with the NYPD is important in emergencies. Though unarmed, the officers wear NYPD uniforms and have the power to restrain students.
“The uniform is a deterrent,” Moore said. “We are not just dealing with students, but bad actors who may want to come into a building.”
She fears that moving back to the education department, where school safety was housed until 1998, would sap the power of agents and return to a culture where crime statistics were suppressed by educators.
Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the Committee on Education, argued the program’s affiliation with the NYPD undermines school principals.
“Under this current structure, there is a glaring accountability gap between the leader of the school and the safety agents who are playing a huge role in shaping the climate,” he said, echoing concerns of student leaders who have called for overhauling the program.
Donovan Richards, chair of the Council’s public safety committee, supports the Council’s proposed cuts and wants funds reinvested in other social services. But, like several other black politicians in the Council, he has sought to distance himself from the “Defund NYPD” messaging plastered on protest signs across the city.
“We are not anti-police. We are anti-police brutality,” Richards said in an interview. “It’s easy to say you don’t want police when you don’t have crime. We don’t live in that fantasy world.”
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