NEW YORK — The national movement to defund the police seemed to score its biggest victory yet over the weekend with a tentative deal to shift $1 billion away from the NYPD.
The agreement to cut a sixth of the budget of the nation’s largest police force would have been unthinkable even several weeks ago, when it became clear the economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic would force huge reductions to city spending. That the city’s Democratic establishment quickly coalesced around such a proposal is testament to how much the mass protests against police brutality have changed the political dynamic in the city and across the country.
But for those pushing for the cuts, it's not enough — not even close.
“This is a lie,” said Anthonine Pierre, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, an umbrella criminal justice organization that has been a leading voice in the defund push in New York. She accused Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson of “using funny math and budget tricks to try to mislead New Yorkers into thinking that they plan to meet the movement's demands for at least $1B in direct cuts.”
Vocal-NY, which spearheaded an Occupy Wall Street-style protest camp that has taken over the area near City Hall for the past week, called the deal a “betrayal.”
De Blasio and the City Council are now caught between the growing electoral power of progressive groups, the demands of protesters on the streets, Black and Hispanic legislators urging a more cautious approach, and virulent opposition from police unions. The outcome serves as one of the highest profile examples to date of how challenging an issue the defund movement can be for politicians to navigate — even in liberal New York City.
De Blasio started the month insisting he’d be unwilling to reduce funding for “the agency that is here to keep us safe.” The City Council, feeling the heat of demonstrations on the streets, outside their offices, and in some cases outside their homes, delivered a package of $1 billion in rollbacks and reallocations, with the implicit threat to vote down the mayor’s budget if he didn’t go along. Eventually, he did.
The budget deal, first reported by POLITICO Sunday night, calls for moving school safety agents, who are unarmed but wear police uniforms, out of the NYPD and into the city’s Department of Education. The mayor and the Council also agreed to cancel a July class of roughly 1,100 police recruits. And they want to shift certain homeless outreach operations away from police control. The deal is still tentative and must be approved by the full Council.
Vocal-NY, in a statement, said police should be removed from any role in homeless services, schools, youth programs, overdose response, mental health issues and other social services, and the budget dollars they use should be redirected to social service programs.
“The deal as described does nothing close, preserving police resources and power — with not a single layoff among NYPD’s uniformed cops," the group said.
Proponents of a more traditional law and order approach, meanwhile, said the change would be disastrous for a city already reeling from the pandemic and an exodus of wealthier residents who fled as a result. Shootings and murders have surged in recent weeks, and the budget cuts are just the latest move the city has made away from a more aggressive style of policing.
“Mayor de Blasio’s message to New Yorkers today was clear: you will have fewer cops on your streets. Shootings more than doubled again last week. Even right now, the NYPD doesn’t have enough manpower to shift cops to one neighborhood without making another neighborhood less safe,” said Police Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch in a statement issued Monday.
“We will say it again: the Mayor and the City Council have surrendered the city to lawlessness. Things won’t improve until New Yorkers hold them responsible," he added.
It is not clear whether the 36,000-member NYPD’s headcount will fall as a result of the budget deal.
City Council Member Joe Borelli, one of just three Republicans on the Council, said the mayor and fellow lawmakers “caved to the mob. Government-by-hashtag.”
Since the protests began in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, New York state repealed a law that for decades kept police disciplinary records secret, and de Blasio promised to publish a database of records online. The NYPD disbanded its plainclothes anti-crime units, which were both a lynchpin of its strategy for getting guns off the street and a frequent source of excessive force complaints. Police officials were required to release body camera footage within thirty days.
De Blasio, long torn between the police reform credentials he ran on and his fear of alienating the NYPD he needs to keep crime down, ordered an 8 p.m. curfew after several bursts of looting in the city. He staunchly defended the police department’s aggressive enforcement of the rule, which videos showed included shoving protesters and striking them with batons. His approach generated a fierce backlash, including a loss of support from his allies and protests by his own staff.
As de Blasio scrambled to find his footing, the debate shifted to the city budget. The City Council — where five years ago many of the same progressive lawmakers pushed through an increase of 1,300 NYPD officers — embraced a $1 billion cut, though a number of Black and Latino legislators were reluctant to sign off on the “defund the police” mantra.
The mayor promised a modest shift of money from the NYPD to youth services, but rejected the call for a billion-dollar cut. He specifically opposed moving school safety agents out of the NYPD.
But with a balanced budget legally required to be approved by 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, and no sign of the federal bailout he has requested from Washington or borrowing authority he wants from Albany, the mayor came around on both fronts — just in time to end up in the familiar position of taking fire from both the left and right.
“I was skeptical at first,” de Blasio said Monday. “I set a high bar. I had to be comfortable that we could do this in a manner that would keep this city safe, and I am.”