With New York City facing a $10 billion shortfall in tax revenues due to COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio last month unveiled his plan for “painful” cuts to city services. His executive budget, set to be finalized with input from the City Council next month, calls for sweeping and immediate retrenchment — freezing new teacher hires, hobbling environmental initiatives, and cancelling the widely popular youth employment program.
But at least one city agency has largely escaped the chopping block. Under the mayor’s proposal, the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion budget would dip just $23.8 million—a 0.39 percent cut—in the coming fiscal year. During the same period, funding for Department of Education is poised to drop by $827 million—a 3 percent cut of its overall budget.
As the NYPD faces growing scrutiny into the role of policing during the pandemic, some elected officials and advocates say it’s time to take a hard look at the department’s spending — starting with its upcoming hires.
“We can’t talk about cutting summer youth employment programs and critical social services while going out there and paying $25 million for a new police class,” said Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the council’s public safety committee. "It's just common sense."
After moving up the graduation date for more than 500 cadets in April, the NYPD is currently training another 1,163 recruits, who are expected to join the force in July. Richards has proposed shaving $55 million from the NYPD’s budget by stopping or postponing that round of hires while at the same time minimally reducing overtime.
During a virtual budget hearing on Thursday — in which officials voiced nearly unanimous support for removing the NYPD from social distancing enforcement — at least a dozen council members said they backed Richards’s plan.
The councilmembers noted that the cancellation of typical summer events, like parades and block parties, would reduce NYPD overtime anyway. Striking that funding from the budget now could help restore an updated form of the Summer Youth Employment Program, which serves 75,000 kids, primarily in minority neighborhoods, and costs roughly $124 million.
“Something has to shift in this city as we prepare for a very long summer,” said Bronx Councilmember Vanessa Gibson. “We cannot say that policing is more important than young people and their families.”
The idea of diverting money away from the NYPD budget was met with resistance from police leaders on the video call. “Do we want to give more for kids? Absolutely,” said Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. “Where does the money come from? That’s a tough question.”
Even the $3.2 million reserved for the department’s public relations purposes, Shea argued, was necessary “for us to tell our side of the story.”
The department had identified an additional $10 million that could be taken out of overtime payouts, Shea said. That’s a fraction of the roughly $700 million in annual NYPD overtime expenses, which have consistently exceeded their budget allotments in recent years.
Police officials also pushed back on calls to delay the city’s graduating class, evoking memories of past crime spikes during eras of financial strife.
“I was out there in the 1970s,” said Chief of Department Terence Monahan. “You need the police out there to tamp it down otherwise you could really have this city going in the wrong direction.”
As a result of that fiscal crisis, the police force dropped by nearly 6,000 people, as no new officers were hired or trained for five years. In the decades since, the city’s total spending on policing has steadily climbed — increasing by more than $1 billion after Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, according to an analysis from the Independent Budget Office.
Even as the crime rate has plummeted to historic lows in New York City, the police headcount has remained largely unchanged since the early aughts.
According to Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University who specializes in police accountability and criminal law, recent videos of cops swarming civilians for social distancing offenses “raises again the question of just how many police we need to keep public order on the streets and below the streets.”
“The NYPD is overstaffed, well beyond what its mission requires,” he said. “Maybe it's a full employment policy for cops, but I can't think of another reason not to shrink the force.”
Asked on Thursday about the City Council’s calls to curtail the NYPD’s budget, de Blasio expressed reservations about limiting the department in any way during the pandemic.
“Right now, we're asking the NYPD to do a whole lot,” he said. “We're asking them to do everything they normally do to protect people and to keep crime down and to provide support to people in terms of quality of life, while also having to play a constructive role on addressing social distancing and all the other realities of this crisis.”
Future budgeting decisions would hinge on whether the city receives adequate funding from the next federal stimulus bill, he added.
The city's police unions have also decried any attempts to halt new NYPD hires. Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch called the suggestion “insanely reckless” and warned of a “social pressure cooker” created by the public health crisis.
But police reform advocates say the need to reassess the NYPD’s budget has never been more urgent. Looking beyond the modest proposals from councilmembers, they see a bloated police budget that could easily be redistributed toward expanding the social safety net when New Yorkers need it most.
“Given the devastation that so many communities have faced, the conversation shouldn’t be about whether or not we add police, but how far can we go in decreasing policing while increasing social services,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of the coalition Communities United for Police Reform.
"This is both an obligation and an opportunity," Kang added. "Budgets are moral documents, so now is the time to step back and assess what our priorities should be."