Why is the NYPD So Powerful?

Holding the NYPD accountable is a project that will outlast Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio

These days, as mass protests against police brutality convulse New York City and more and more people demand an end to state-sponsored violence, it can feel particularly strange to watch the spectacle of an ostensibly liberal mayor defend the broken status quo. Bill de Blasio has excused police officers who swing batons at unarmed protesters and ram their vehicles into crowds. He has repeatedly stuck by his commissioner, Dermot Shea, and maintained the police have acted with the utmost discretion, though eyewitness testimony and videos suggest otherwise. Former aides who worked to elect a mayor on a platform of police reform are aghast. What went wrong, exactly?

Why does the Mayor of New York City defer so egregiously to his police department? Why does this keep happening?

Mass protests aren’t new to New York City. Neither is police violence. The police department in New York is a paramilitary that operates with little accountability, relative to other city agencies. A police commissioner in New York can be thought of as an appointed mayor of a quasi-independent fiefdom. The police commissioner, ultimately, must answer to the mayor and City Council—mayors can fire commissioners at any time—but the police can cow those who oppose them politically. As recently as 2015, one year after Eric Garner died in police custody, the otherwise progressive City Council led a multi-year campaign to hire 1,000 new police officers. This year, in their latest stimulus bill, House Democrats included $300 million for a nationwide police expansion. Politicians of both political parties have supported bolstering police power for decades.

In New York City, from a raw vote-getting perspective, the police unions have never been weaker. A significant minority of their membership does not live in the five boroughs and can’t vote in city elections. Many of the voters who most loudly embrace law-and-order candidates and view the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association’s endorsement as a much-needed validator have retired or died. These white outer borough ethnics, who once exercised great sway over municipal elections, are diminished, turning the city over to a more diverse and liberal constituency.

Ironically, after 20 years of Republican rule, it was Bill de Blasio who proved a Democratic candidate for mayor no longer needed these people to win. A more moderate candidate (he was African-American, funnily enough) won the white ethnic enclaves of the outer boroughs while de Blasio swept to power on a coalition of liberal, younger whites and blacks in central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens. His 2013 victory feels incredibly distant now, but it was a remarkable show of coalition-building and raw electoral dominance. That politician is long gone.

Given all of that, why do the police have such a hold on de Blasio? The answer is complex. Like much of New York’s reality today—pre-pandemic and post-pandemic—it dates back to the nadir of the 1970s, when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. By 1975, the city’s tax base was cratering as whites with money fled to the suburbs and traditional blue collar manufacturing collapsed. Mayors Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, and Abe Beame were poor fiscal stewards, borrowing money to pay operating costs and relying on varying fiscal gimmicks to keep the books balanced. Today’s centrist and conservative intelligentsia (the editorial boards, local pundits, budget think tanks) click their tongues here, but all three mayors scrambled in this way to preserve New York City’s robust, postwar social safety net in the wake of white flight and manufacturing decline. Without federal help, these mayors didn’t have many other options—unless they wanted to decimate the budget, curtail city services, and lay off a whole lot of people. The layoffs would eventually come when the bankers, the state, and federal governments forced the city’s hand.

At the same time, crime was rising. The murder rate began to tick upwards in the 1960s and continued rising in the 1970s. In 1969, for the first time, at least 1,000 people were murdered in New York City. The number of people murdered would steadily increase until, in 1990, 2,245 were killed, an all-time high. To put this context, a little more than 300 people were murdered in 2019 and this was treated as an unsettling trend.

New York’s crime rate, broadly, mirrored national trends. A surge in the 1970s and 1980s led to a broad decline in the 1990s that continues to this day. There is no agreed upon explanation. Everything from the crack epidemic to the baby boom to the end of lead paint to new policing strategies have been used to explain this bell curve. The narrative that has most dominated the imagination of New York politicos is that a tough-on-crime mayor, Rudy Giuliani, partnered with a hard-charging police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to implement a “broken windows” policing strategy that cracked down on small quality-of-life issues to ensure more violent crime didn’t spread.

Generally, this is a narrative worth being skeptical of because Bratton’s tenure with Giuliani lasted barely two years. A decade later, Michael Bloomberg would argue that the only way to maintain low crime rates was aggressively stopping and frisking black and brown men. When stop-and-frisks plummeted at the end of Bloomberg’s tenure and continued under de Blasio, crime remained historically low. There was no statistical correlation between stop-and-frisk and the rate of crime. To date, there isn’t a strong statistical correlation between any particular crime-fighting technique and the reduction of crime.

What’s important, however, are the twins powers of mythos and history in New York. Since the 1970s fiscal crisis, the elites of the city, in concert with the Democratic and Republican political establishments, have warned repeatedly that another great fall for New York is possible if the city drifts too far from the late 20th century neoliberal consensus. What is this, exactly? It’s what my friend Sam Stein calls “the real estate state.” It’s the marriage of Wall Street, real estate capital, and urban planning, with politicians—self-described progressives and moderates alike—religiously supporting tax giveaways and favorable zoning policies for the for-profit developers of real estate. Market-rate housing construction is an overwhelming priority because market-rate housing is profitable. Ensuring property values continually increase—and therefore residential and commercial rents surge—has been the primary, implicit goal of all mayors after 1975. Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill de Blasio may have belonged to different political parties and espoused varying ideas, but their commitment to the real estate state, across decades, was unflagging. Until the pandemic, real estate had never been more valuable in New York City, with growing amounts of global wealth parked right here. The city, meanwhile, has grown frighteningly unaffordable for the working class and poor.

Police, in this calculus, safeguard property value. If police don’t do their jobs, a mainstream Democratic politician would tell you, the city could spiral into chaos. Crime would skyrocket. Property value would decline. The real estate and investor class would lose confidence in New York and stop investing their capital. Any pivot toward a model of social democratic urban planning—or even, at the minimum, a reduction in the NYPD’s near $6 billion budget—would trigger this unraveling. De Blasio’s appointment of Bratton, the Giuliani-era police commissioner, can be understood in this context. Bratton was a liberal mayor’s concession to a business and real estate establishment he believed needed to be placated. It was a signal that his administration, no matter its reputation, would never veer too far left. De Blasio is of the belief that any progressive reform can’t happen without police to maintain New York’s low crime rate. Any spike will sap political capital for his projects.

Police unions understand politicians. Pat Lynch has been leading the PBA since 1999. He has merely followed a playbook written by past union presidents, who literally staged riots and race-baiting, citywide referendums when mild reforms of the department were proposed. The threat police have dangled over mayors, left and right, is rather simple: you make us angry and we will unleash disorder. The Thin Blue Line mythology operates from this principal—police are the only entity standing in the way between peace and chaos. In 2014, after Eric Garner’s death, de Blasio spoke eloquently about his biracial son and the nature of policing in America. Police nearly revolted. Once two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were murdered in late 2014 by a mentally unstable man, the die had been cast: police turned their backs on de Blasio at the funerals of the two officers. Never again would de Blasio defy them.

De Blasio, in this sense, is a remarkably unimaginative politician, like Andrew Cuomo. Police did stop doing their jobs, momentarily, after the murders of Liu and Ramos, in protest of de Blasio’s allegedly anti-police gestures. Arrests and summonses plummeted in early 2015. This, in labor and political parlance, is called a slowdown. The truth about the slowdown, as I’ve written before, is that crime remained quite low. Lack of police enforcement did not unleash the sort of disorder Lynch and his ilk always promise would come. It’s a small sample size, yes. But de Blasio has never used this data point to his advantage. Instead, he has grown only more defensive of his police department. Even in an age of COVID-19-induced catastrophe, with tax revenue evaporating by the month, de Blasio cannot bring himself to meaningfully cut funding to his police department.

For the first time in my memory, the rest of the Democratic establishment is beginning to comprehend how outmoded de Blasio’s approach has been. There is a growing movement among City Council members to cut the NYPD’s budget by at least $1 billion, which would begin the process of unwinding a paramilitary that is larger than most police departments worldwide. Defunding the police is reducing police power and reducing, in turn, the sort of harmful interactions heavily armed men and women have with unarmed New Yorkers. Shrinking the NYPD is now so mainstream that most of de Blasio’s potential successors are embracing the idea without much equivocation. This isn’t the same as embracing the call to abolish the police entirely—I am not here to argue for a world without any police at all. It is merely to say that most problems don’t need militarized solutions. A mentally ill, elderly woman does not have to be shot dead by police. A man selling cigarettes illegally does not need to be choked to death. And relentless police harassment and surveillance isn’t required to contain crime.

In 2022, a new mayor will take office with a large majority of first-term city council members. Many of them will be more attuned to modern political realities than their predecessors. They will study the failings of the de Blasio years. Perhaps they will learn something.