Defund the Police Comes to the NYC Mayoral Race

Only one candidate falls in hard behind the idea

In 2015, the progressive flank of the New York City Council very much wanted to overhaul the NYPD.

A year earlier, a police officer had placed Eric Garner, a Black Staten Islander, in a chokehold, killing him. Many of the Council’s Democrats were in office when Michael Bloomberg, as mayor, had catastrophically escalated the number of stop-and-frisks in the city. Changing how police interact with marginalized communities was a top concern for Bill de Blasio, the new mayor, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker who had emerged from the body’s progressive faction.

Their proposal, which garnered plenty of support, was to hire more police—more than a thousand, to be precise.

“More police officers has been something the Council has made a priority for quite some time,” Jumaane Williams, a former member of the City Council and now the New York City public advocate, said in 2015. “I’m disappointed we haven’t seen it yet.”

Williams, of course, has been a firebrand critic of the police for decades, and today belongs to the vanguard of the defund the police movement. Over the summer, he threatened to block the municipal budget if it didn’t significantly cut the NYPD budget .

Though Williams was not successful with his budget declaration in 2020, he got what he wanted in 2015. The city would end up hiring nearly 1,300 new police officers at a time of historically low crime to implement a community policing program that de Blasio was only reluctantly behind. The irony of that 2015 demand—and why it would seem so odd to our 2021 perspective—was that it was the left-leaning city council members pushing de Blasio and his reactionary police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to hire more cops, and the two men resisting. In 2014, Bratton said that “the size of the force has nothing to do with the ability to do collaborative or community policing.”

Activists at the time did oppose the City Council’s push, with some invoking the future goals of the defund movement without using the exact language. New Yorkers Against Bratton, a group run by the activist Josmar Trujillo, called for pouring money into “our high-poverty neighborhoods and into non-cop solutions to community problems.” But Trujillo and his allies were ignored, and eventually de Blasio and Bratton aligned with the City Council to increase the police headcount, aiming to have more police walking the beat and forming relationships with community members.

We are now, obviously, in a very different place. George Floyd’s death ignited a protest movement larger than any seen in a half century. In every major city, including New York, protesters and police clashed last summer. The NYPD savagely beat up and kettled marchers, and is now the subject of a lawsuit from the State Attorney General. De Blasio won office in 2013 promising to radically reform the police department, but 2020 showed that relatively little, beyond a decline in stop-and-risks, had changed. The police department remains a highly militarized body that often exists beyond conventional accountability. No agency head enjoys the autonomy that the police commissioner does.

Police reform, as a cause, is widely popular—people of all races and backgrounds can resent the presence of overbearing cops—but the brand of the new movement around it is not. Defund the police, a highly memorable phrase that can mean either reform or abolish departments altogether, polls terribly. A March poll from USA Today and Ipsos found just 18 percent supported the movement and 58 percent opposed it. Whites opposed it more than people of color, but Blacks and Latinos were not in favor of it either. Only 28 percent of Black Americans backed the movement. Redirecting police funds to social services did poll better: 43 percent supported the idea and 57 percent were against.

Defund the police functions as a reverse Medicare for All. Most voters favor Medicare for All when they hear about it and embrace the concept of universal healthcare. Support can erode somewhat if the details behind the bill—higher taxes, a loss of private and municipal health insurance—are explained to Americans. But this is a natural progression for any kind of sweeping legislation that would bring monumental change to an enormous sector of the economy. Defund, meanwhile, is damaged at the starting gate, and it’s very hard to proceed from there. If the goals of the movement are detailed further, support increases, since few are against more public cash for social services. Many Americans, even the wealthy, don’t have a particular reverence for rank-and-file cops, and would prefer not to be bugged while drinking in the park or double-parking illegally. But a social movement will have a hard time lasting if its poll numbers remain so low and the meaning behind it is endlessly debated, with one faction calling for the full abolition of the police—for most Americans, a non-starter—and others demanding actual reform.

Into this fraught debate comes the New York City mayoral election, which will hold its Democratic primary on June 22nd. At least one candidate, Dianne Morales, is fully committed to the goal of defunding the police and unveiled her own plan to overhaul the NYPD last week. Morales would slash the police department’s $6 billion operating budget in half and create a new agency, the Community First Responders Department, that would be the first responder call for people suffering from mental illness, homelessness, and substance abuse. This is an admirable proposal that would help avoid several tragedies in recent years, including the police killing of Deborah Danner, a senior citizen who had written about the hardships of living with a mental illness.

Morales said the new department would cost only $370 million, with the money diverted from the NYPD. Unlike the rest of the field, Morales fully leans into the defund branding, placing it on campaign merchandise. Where exactly the rest of the $3 billion will go—to what social services—is not yet detailed. But the argument, whether you agree with it or not, is simple and compelling: fewer cops on the beat will save lives and uphold the dignity of historically marginalized communities.

Scott Stringer, the city comptroller also vying for progressive Democratic votes, and Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel, have waded into the debate, more careful about explicitly embracing the exact phraseology of defund the police. Stringer has a plan to trim $1 billion from the department over a four year period and has backed the Morales approach, to a lesser extent, of not sending armed police to respond to issues of mental health and homelessness. Wiley, a former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, recently said she’d support a more rapid $1 billion cut.

Stringer and Wiley are each trying to strike a balance between pursuing reform and not completely alienating moderate voters with the defund rhetoric. In a primary where 800,000 Democrats may vote, many of them not Fort Greene or Astoria leftists, this is not unfathomable. However, when you try to be everything to everyone, you run the risk of appeasing no one. The most left voters in the primary are already flocking to Morales because she’s unapologetically in support of delivering seismic budget cuts to the NYPD. Stringer and Wiley are not, but they are signaling enough that they are running left campaigns that outer borough moderates of all races may be wary of ranking them high.

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former police captain, and Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, are decidedly not defund candidates. Adams has spoken of reform for much of his career, but he is not for reducing headcount. Neither is Yang. As shootings and murders continue to rise in cities across America, including New York—an uncomfortable fact that can’t be ignored any longer—Adams has honed in on combating gun violence, which in his view would not be accomplished through greatly reducing police expenditures. He wants the Port Authority to check aggressively for out-of-state guns and would create a new “anti-gun” unit in the NYPD. He has said he would diversify the police department further and disclose the department’s own internal list of officers with records of complaints. He also supports giving communities veto power over precinct commanders. The argument for Adams is clear enough: he was once a cop himself, so he knows where the bodies are buried and could command more respect in the department than other mayors, perhaps opening the door for lasting reforms. At this point, Adams and Yang may have a better feel for the zeitgeist than the left-leaning candidates: concern about murders and shootings is increasing, and polls are showing public safety is a top issue on voters’ minds.

Little that Adams or Yang has proposed would fundamentally change the nature of heavily-armed police harassing poorer people of color. In response to a spike in subway crime, Yang called for sending more cops there, a position that horrified activists but may resonate with the broad swath of moderate voters who view it as a common-sense response. Though he’s been less vociferous than Adams, Yang is not running away from the law-and-order label, and it’s always worth pointing out his top consultant, Tusk Strategies, used to advise the retrograde PBA. Yang has offered some crumbs to the police reform crowd, expressing interest in the idea of a civilian NYPD commissioner and requiring all cops to live in the five boroughs. But Yang is reportedly mulling the idea of promoting a top NYPD official, Juanita Holmes, to lead the department, which would contradict his desire to appoint a civilian commissioner.

Last week, Yang received the endorsement of Carlos Menchaca, a city councilman who briefly ran for mayor. Menchaca entered the City Council as a darling of the progressives, but is now mostly dismissed by the nonprofit left and reviled by DSA for endorsing against their candidates. Menchaca, though, is a proud supporter of the defund the police movement, so it was odd to see him with Yang last week in Red Hook. What became clear, though, was that the term-limited Menchaca was angling for a job in a potential Yang administration. Both spoke of the affinity they had for one another, and Yang will take any endorsement he can get.

At the event, I pressed Yang directly on defund the police, considering he wasn’t a backer of the movement but was accepting the support of someone who proudly wanted to cut the NYPD's budget.

“Most of us agree that there’s a real need for reform in the NYPD and we need to try to evolve the culture of the NYPD as quickly as possible,” Yang told me. “And most people also agree that we’ve underinvested in communities in terms of education, mental health resources, jobs, youth activities and on and on. And so I think people are aligned about the fact we have to do more for certain communities.”

I asked Yang, again, if he’d support ever shrinking NYPD headcount or cutting the department’s budget.

“One of the discussions I think we need to improve on is that people look at things and go, ‘oh, this institution is working or not working, we should, like, give it more money or not give it more money and the fact is, there are institutions in New York City that have a certain level of resources that may or may not have been delivering on what they’re supposed to be doing and it’s not clear that more or less resources is the answer,” Yang said. “To me, we have to have more thoughtful and disciplined conversations about the problems we’re trying to solve and the way to do it without thinking, like, ‘oh, if we, you know, move resources from here to there, that will address the problem.’”

Menchaca said he’d ensure, if Yang won, the defund movement would be “at the table” in a Yang City Hall.

Let me state here that I am skeptical any mayoral candidate will take the necessary steps to deeply reform the NYPD, change the culture, and make the department’s standing military more accountable to New Yorkers. Adams has the inside track, but is also most likely to empathize with the police position. Yang is a neophyte, and it’s not hard to imagine Pat Lynch, the incendiary, Donald Trump-supporting PBA president, bashing him into submission. Maya Wiley’s tenure at the CCRB was uninspiring. Scott Stringer was one of the quieter voices on police reform when Eric Garner was killed on Staten Island.

Morales and Yang both have points to make. It’s clear that there are situations that require well-trained mental health professionals, not armed police. The new agency Morales proposes should lead to fewer police killings and the harassment of those who just need assistance, not handcuffs. At the very minimum, social workers or certain professionals can accompany police on calls that relate to mental disturbances and homelessness. This year, the de Blasio administration launched a pilot program to send social workers to respond to nonviolent mental health calls in Harlem. If it’s a success, it should expand.

Supporters of defund the police will recoil at what Yang said, about funding cuts not necessarily being the solution to the problem of dangerous policing. Yang, however, is not entirely wrong. It’s unclear an NYPD slashed in half would a better NYPD, unless fundamental realities of training, weapon-carrying, and an overall culture are not dramatically altered. Leftists tend to overstate, too, what $3 billion would mean for social services in New York City and grow vague when pressed on where, exactly, that money should go. The municipal budget is about $90 billion and the Department of Education’s budget nears $28 billion. What is $3 billion in such an ocean? Will this money be steered to nonprofits like the ones Morales used to operate, which have real estate arms that routinely evict working class New Yorkers from their homes? At least keep that cash in-house, away from politically-connected private organizations that can squander the cash on extremely high executive salaries.

There is the uncomfortable reality that working class communities of color in New York City are not demanding the end of policing. They want better policing, not the total absence of it. In overwhelmingly African-American Southeast Queens, one of the primary demands of the last decade, from politicians and civic groups, has been the addition of a police precinct. Even last summer, at the height of the George Floyd protests, certain residents in neighborhoods impacted by gun violence expressed ambivalence about the idea of police retrenchment. “These men that are going around killing people, feel that they can walk freely with their gun. Not saying that it wasn’t happening before, but it’s happening more now,” Hermena Moffatt Cox, a Flatbush hairdresser, told Gothamist. “I think they need to bring back that full funding of police officers, I really do.”

Of course, funding levels for the police had not changed much at all. But there was a perception of a pullback and a national demand that the footprint of policing shrink dramatically. This convinced some, especially in communities where the threat of a bullet is very real, that this was a movement they wanted no part of. One of the great challenges marginalized neighborhoods face is getting police to take their trauma seriously. In poorer, nonwhite areas, murderers are less likely to be held accountable and cases are closed at a lower rate. Victims of gun violence want police to solve crimes. Those who support the full abolition of police never have a fantastic answer for what comes next in a world where the function of investigating murders, as we understand them, is not performed by police departments. I do believe a far more robust social welfare state will mitigate a lot of these problems—that’s usually the rejoinder to the question I just raised—but in a nation like America, where guns are widely available and a feature of daily life, it is hard to imagine great afterschool programs, single-payer healthcare, and a jobs guarantee will completely eradicate all crime. Somewhere, at some point, someone will be killed or assaulted, and there will need to be a functioning police department to investigate the crime, track down clues, and try to bring justice for the family impacted.

Raising police headcount or implementing “broken windows” policing did not wholly create the historic decline in violent crime New York experienced in the 1990s and 2000s. Crime, largely, follows a national trend, and to this day there is no consensus theory explaining why so many cities saw drops in crime in the late 20th and early 21st centuries after a terrifying surge in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. New York, though, has some limited experience with what a defund movement looks like. Following the 1975 fiscal crisis, 5,000 police officers were laid off. From 1975 to 1979, not a single officer was hired in New York City and police disappeared through attrition. Crime kept increasing and police continued to harass and kill young Black men. The killing of Michael Stewart, in 1983, came during this period of retrenchment, as did other high profile incidents. The point here is not that more and more police are required to prevent future spikes in crime—NYPD headcount has held rather steady for the last two decades, though crime has fallen off tremendously—but that a shrinkage of the NYPD does not guarantee any kind of reform. A smaller police department can still bully and beat up young men in the streets. A $3 billion police department is not going to usher us into anything resembling a utopia.

A more reasonable goal would be to demilitarize the police—rollback the wasteful expenditures and surveillance infrastructure that transformed the post-9/11 NYPD into a de facto Army, spying on Muslims and amassing all kinds of terrifying weaponry. Trained like soldiers, these police were usually set upon unarmed protesters, torturing them outside the 2004 Republican National Convention and kettling them violently during the George Floyd marches last year. Taking cops off the beat is not going to solve this problem on its own. Gutting military-style expenditures, empowering a civilian commissioner, and dismantling the units dreamed into existence by Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton will help.

If the next mayor wants to reimagine policing in New York in a serious way, he or she will need to look to Europe, particularly Germany, where police undergo a regimen of extensive education and training unheard of in America. Subjecting police to years of education before they put on a uniform and carry a gun would ensure a different kind of person is walking the beat. Guns shouldn’t be handed out to every officer either—weaponry, on this ideal force, would be for those who earn it. Not every officer needs a gun and America should look to other countries, where police can patrol effectively without firearms at all. Forcing police officers to live in New York City would ensure, at the minimum, they don’t treat the neighborhoods of their beat like alien terrain.

Perhaps New York can simply look to Newark, where Mayor Ras Baraka’s police did not fire a single shot in 2020 or pay out any public money for police brutality cases. Change in Newark was forced by a federal consent decree that found, in 2014, the police department had a culture of deep violence, with poorly-trained, racist officers failing to de-escalate confrontations with civilians. Under Baraka, training significantly improved, more Black officers were hired, and everyone had to report any and all uses of force, with a supervisor reviewing it. Violence interrupter groups, activists, and clergy leaders partnered with the police to ease tensions and ensure residents did not feel besieged. This does not mean racial disparities in policing have been solved in Newark or problems don’t persist. But it does show that the fatalist narratives favored on the left don’t always have purchase. Police departments aren’t nearly as corrupt or violent as they were 50 or 60 years ago, when casual killings and bribery scandals were far more routine. Progress has occurred.

In the Democratic primary, which will effectively anoint the next mayor in June, the top candidates are grappling with competing imperatives. More voters seem to care about public safety than criminal justice reform, but both absolutely matter. The “defund” brand is damaged, but many of the goals of the movement should be pursued anyway. It will be better to examine individual policy and depart, whenever possible, from mere virtue signaling. The largest city in America can’t be governed that way.