The fight to “defund” the NYPD, explained

“Cut it! Cut it! Cut it! Cut it! Cut it!” the crowd of protesters chanted.

Together, they raised their hands skyward, two fingers clipping together to mime scissors.

“What?” the person leading the chant called over the sound system. “Your budget’s way too high, you need to cut it!” The crowd repeated the line, fingers chop-chopping with every syllable.

The budget in question belonged to the New York City Police Department, the nation’s largest police force. Along with law enforcement agencies across the country, the NYPD has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality following the police killing of George Floyd.

Last Tuesday evening, at a rally outside of City Hall in lower Manhattan, demonstrators and activists, including family members of people killed by the NYPD, demanded that at least $1 billion be cut from the police department’s approximately $6 billion pot of the city budget. Advocates want to see some of that money redirected to essential services and social and educational programs.

The New York City Council has since endorsed a plan to trim $1 billion from the department’s budget. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would shift funds from the police department to youth and social services, but he has rejected that $1 billion number.

This debate in New York City comes during a nationwide reckoning about policing. That reckoning spans a wide spectrum, from reforms to increased accountability to outright abolition. “Defund the police” has turned into a common protest slogan around the country, repeated by crowds and scribbled on cardboard signs.

There are many shades of “defund the police,” and in lots of places, what that might look like is being worked out in real time. The call to cut NYPD funding is not new for many advocates and organizers, but the George Floyd protests have reshaped, rapidly, what feels achievable now.

”These things don’t happen in a vacuum: these slogans like ‘defund the police’ and 50-a — all of these things, they don’t just come out in the sky. This is the product of years and years of organizing,” David Galarza, an activist with the Justice Committee, a grassroots group fighting racism and police brutality in New York, told me.

The protests have already pushed lawmakers to embrace reforms that had long stalled, including making police chokeholds illegal and repealing 50-a, which previously shielded police misconduct records from the public. The NYPD said this week it would disband and reassign its plainclothes anti-crime units, about 600 members of the force.

Scrutiny of the NYPD’s budget has joined the list. It is one that police unions oppose and NYPD’s top brass is at least wary over. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea has said he backs rerouting some funds from the police to youth programs, urging the city council to “cut smartly.”

Demonstrators in New York on June 15.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

But the clock is ticking: New York City’s budget is due before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have upended the city’s financials. Right now, the city’s Independent Budget Office is predicting about a $9.7 billion tax revenue shortfall through the next fiscal year. Federal help is still a question mark. The mayor has trimmed about $6 billion from his original budget proposal in February, though that might not even be enough.

The city could be facing its worst fiscal crisis in decades, which would require slashing across city agencies. But advocates say that now, as the city begins its painful recovery from the pandemic, is exactly the time to reinvest in social, health, and community services and away from law enforcement.

The coronavirus has killed more than 22,000 people in New York City, most heavily concentrated in black and Latino communities. The city’s unemployment rate is about 14 percent. Those most affected by these twin catastrophes overlap with communities that more deeply experience overpolicing.

“This is actually part of a much broader public conversation that needs to happen, about decisive governmental action that needs to happen to keep our city safe — to come out of this pandemic in a way that we don’t deepen inequity, especially in terms of black, Latinx, and other communities of color,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a coalition of advocacy groups that’s leading the charge to remove $1 billion from the NYPD budget and redirect those funds to lifesaving support and programs and critical infrastructure.

This debate over the NYPD’s budget will test a version of “defunding” the police, at least in one city, with a world-famous force. Momentum for reform is colliding with the uncertainty of what the city will look like, and need, post-pandemic. Add to that an urgent deadline.

Whatever the outcome, the fight is going to be a lot more complicated than “cut it!”

How the city got here

The New York City Police Department costs the city about $11 billion, about half of which goes to items like pensions and fringe benefits. Its operating budget is just shy of $6 billion, and the bulk of that goes to its personnel, for things like salaries and overtime, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission.

The NYPD has the third-largest operating budget in the city based on this year’s budget, behind the departments of Education ($24 billion) and Social Services ($10 billion, including Medicaid payments). This current fiscal year, the NYPD’s operating budget accounted for a little more than 6 percent of the city’s $90 billion-plus budget, though the NYPD’s share of city resources has actually declined in the past two decades.

Earlier this year, de Blasio submitted his initial $95.3 billion budget for the coming fiscal year (FY2021), which officially starts July 1. Then the coronavirus hit. The mayor resubmitted a proposal this spring, shrinking the budget by about $6 billion total, to $89.3 billion.

Shaving billions from a massive budget like New York City’s required across-the-board cuts and hiring freezes at some agencies. That included slashes to social and youth services, including completely gutting the city’s summer youth employment program that employs about 70,000 teens, many from lower-income communities.

And those subtractions looked particularly glaring compared to the NYPD budget. As Gothamist’s Jake Offenhartz reported:

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.

Even before the George Floyd protests, activists and city council members had questioned the mayor’s budgeting priorities — and why the NYPD escaped relatively unscathed, especially since there seemed like some areas worth trimming. For instance, NYPD overtime was expected to go down because things like parade and concerts were largely canceled (at least before the near-daily demonstrations) because of the pandemic.

Plus, crime in the city remains near record lows, and at this time of extreme belt-tightening when other agencies faced freezes, some questioned the need for the NYPD to continue to bring on new members to the force.

“Once again, there’s no need for @NYCMayor to spend $25 million on a new police class. Let’s redistribute those $ into [Summer Youth Employment Program] and the Crisis Management System. Crime is down. Another class would only add to social-distancing enforcement in black communities,” Donovan Richard, a city council member from southeastern Queens and chair of the Public Safety Committee, tweeted in early May.

But the cries for #NYCBudgetJustice intensified with the protests against police brutality and racism that have enveloped the country following the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis.

What advocates want

Calls to “defund the police” have accompanied a broader discussion about rethinking the use and purpose of law enforcement — whether an armed officer has to respond to each 911 call, whether putting more money into social and mental health services would prevent the need for police intervention and better protect and build safer communities in the long run.

“It remains really clear, again, that if we had more investments in our communities in education in the arts programs in music programs, in summer youth employment programs, in mental health services — if we really prioritize our citizens and gave them the tools and the things that they needed to be able to live a vibrant, healthy, safe existence, we can greatly diminish the need for law enforcement,” Galarza, of the Justice Committee, said.

“Law enforcement shouldn’t be used for every facet of our lives,” he added. “They shouldn’t be in our school system. They shouldn’t be evicting homeless people from trains. They shouldn’t be used during a pandemic. What do cops know about a pandemic and health services?”

That conversation is still evolving, but activists are pushing for results now. From Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, to Chicago to New York and beyond, organizers are seizing an opportunity to, if not to fully defund, then diminish and redirect funds that go to police forces, reshaping law enforcement and city priorities in the process.

Protesters took over a large portion of a major intersection calling for defunding the police in Charlottesville, Virginia on June 13.
Eze Amos/Getty Images

Communities United for Police Reform released a report this week that documents where “policing-related savings” adding up to about $2 billion, though they are demanding at least a $1 billion slice of the NYPD’s budget.

That would include freezing new hires ($208 million, plus millions more in fringe benefits, according to CPR) and slashing overtime ($300 million), along items like deducting costs from settlements the NYPD has to pay out for misconduct and removing police from schools and putting school safety back under the control of the Department of Education.

The proposal would also take away funding for the NYPD’s role in responding to mental health and homelessness. (Some of the figures also take into account savings from reduction in things like fringe benefits, which come out of a different pot of money.)

In many of these instances, CPR recommends redirecting some of the savings to social programs, swapping the tens of millions that currently go to funding, say, school safety officers for more investment in restorative justice programs and guidance counselors.

Advocates argue that these broad cuts would bring the NYPD back down in size and in funding levels to where it was around 2014, when de Blasio took office.

“The city has historically underfunded areas that actually, we would argue, keep people safe in material ways,” Kang, director of CPR, told me. She continued:

We mean permanent affordable housing, public health, infrastructure and public health services, education supports for our young people in school, income and food justice, environmental and transportation justice — all of those compared to the city’s budget around policing criminalization is really dwarfed, and it shows the long-term priorities that the city has shown through it’s money.

The New York City Council has backed a plan to eliminate $1 billion, though the details are still emerging. Politico, which obtained a copy of the plan, reported Wednesday that lawmakers are prepared to offer up a plan that cuts the NYPD’s budget by about 20 percent.

According to Politico, big chunks of savings would come from shaving and restricting the department’s overtime budget, totaling $163 million, and from not replacing the retiring and departing officers this year, at $300 million. It would also return school safety officers to the Department of Education.

“There is no doubt that this is an ambitious goal, but it is one that the time we are in calls for — both here in New York City and nationwide,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and the other city council leaders wrote in a joint statement on June 12.

“This is possible: We have identified savings that would cut over $1 billion dollars, including reducing uniform headcount through attrition, cutting overtime, shifting responsibilities away from the NYPD, finding efficiencies and savings in OTPS spending, and lowering associated fringe expenses,” the statement said.

Like all budget negotiations, though, the details are going to matter — and, of course, what City Hall says.

The mayor and the NYPD are open to cuts, but how much?

Mayor Bill de Blasio previously said he is open to shifting funds to “to youth services, to social services,” and the details would be worked out in negotiations with the city council. But so far, the mayor has resisted the size of the cuts some city council members and advocates are proposing.

“The mayor has said we’re committed to re-prioritizing funding and looking for savings, but he does not believe a $1 billion cut is the way to maintain safety,” de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said this weekend. (Vox confirmed Tuesday that this is still the mayor’s position.)

De Blasio ran for mayor on a platform of police reform, but his defense of — and, critics would say, deference to — the police department, especially in the last few weeks of protests, has rankled reformers, who already felt he had fallen short of his promise to revamp the department.

Terrence Floyd (left) George Floyd’s brother talks to Mayor de Blasio on June 4.
Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

And the re-examination of the NYPD’s budget is a swift transformation in the city, as officials are usually loath to chop into the budget the police force, fearing blowback, especially if crime goes up. But as the political mood has shifted, so have lawmakers’ positions. Speaker Johnson, who signed on to the $1 billion plan, is planning a run for mayor in 2021.

And then there are the police themselves: Police unions have staunchly opposed the plan, and have largely blasted any of the latest attempts at reforms. Commissioner Shea told the Associated Press in an interview this week that he is open to reexamining funding for responsibilities the NYPD has taken on through the years, such as school safety, though he resisted cuts to the size of the force.

“I think everyone has to cut. I think we’re going to be forced to do difficult things. We certainly get that,” Shea said. “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.”

The NYPD “will continue to work closely with City Hall during discussions around the NYPD budget,” Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a spokesperson in the police department’s press office, told Vox.

But cutting — and, more importantly, redirecting — funds may be much harder in a city where the full scale of its economic crisis isn’t yet clear. At least the city is about to find out.

A test for “defunding”

The momentum of the protests has helped shift public opinion on police reforms. Videos of police brutality during the protests have undercut the notion that this is just “a few bad apples.”

And then there is devastation brought on by the coronavirus. New York and its surrounding areas became the Covid-19 epicenter, isolated by the scale of the emergency. The city is now emerging from the peak of the pandemic, but into what isn’t clear.

Right now, the city is stuck in limbo: post-lockdown but not quite reopened. That is obscuring the true scale of economic disruption — which jobs will come back, which businesses will survive, who will leave, and who will stay. That requires building an “equitable” pandemic recovery, as Kang put it, one that doesn’t exacerbate the disparities revealed by the coronavirus.

At the same time, this is a budget fight in a city that is facing a massive fiscal crisis, which means all agencies and their budgets are be under scrutiny — the “no sacred cows” idea. And when every agency is stretched for funding and resources or staff, that requires a careful balancing act.

“Budget cuts and decisions about the department should really be driven by an assessment of what services you want to provide in what way and how do you do that,” Ana Champeny, director of city studies at the nonpartisan, New York-focused Citizens Budget Commission, told me.

Champeny added that the NYPD is “a personnel-heavy agency.” New York’s uniformed police force is about 36,000, with another 19,000 civilian employees. Shrinking the force is likely to be the most controversial of areas, and some experts I spoke to were skeptical it could be cut down simply by attrition — basically not replacing the officers who depart.

Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, has found a way to achieve $1 billion in savings, including through attrition, but over four years — a cost savings of $265 million annually.

Advocates do not want to wait. “We’re drawing the line in the sand at $1 billion starting July 1,” Galarza said. “And it’s going to be $1 billion now, not in four years, 10 years. And we’re hoping that this is just the beginning of that.”

Anti-police brutality protests have been met with heavy police presence in New York City and cities across the country.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

But redirecting or shifting funds may not be as simple as just moving pots of money around. To do so effectively, and equitably, might mean accompanying broader reforms, or figuring out how to fill service gaps. Beyond moving funds from a police department, it will likely require greater investments — just more money, period — into programs like affordable housing, education, and social services.

For example, in the late 1990s, moving school safety agents from the Department of Education to the NYPD was also a political battle. Whether the DOE is prepared and ready to take on the responsibility is another issue. The union leading those school safety agents is opposed. It may make sense to take the NYPD out of schools, but doing so might require wholesale rethinking not just of the city budget, but of how services and law enforcement are structured in New York City.

Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, told me that these kinds of questions require planning, and a lot of it, and a sense that the agency getting the funds is going to be effective at achieving its goal.

“You need to specify,” he said. “When we say we invest in the communities: what and where? And for how much? What evidence [do] we have that that’s going to produce the positive results we want?”

Rebecca Neusteter, executive director of Health Lab at the University of Chicago Urban Labs, told me that many cities have told the police to do way more than most want to or are resourced to do.

“And I think it creates a really toxic dynamic in some instances between police and communities, because you have this tension of a police department that isn’t resourced or equipped or really interested in responding to needs that have been flagged for them to solve,” she said.

Untangling that is a lot more difficult. Neusteter pointed to the 911 system: Most calls don’t require police, but overhauling the system to be more responsive to a community’s needs is not something that can be tweaked easily, even if resources shift.

“If we are going to be trying to really fundamentally change the way that people receive services in this country and get help when they are asking for [it],” Neustater said, “it cannot go unrecognized that there are funding needs and services that have to be attached and correspond to those things.”

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