Who opposes defunding the NYPD? These black lawmakers.
By Jeffrey C. Mays
With New York City on the cusp of cutting $1 billion from the Police Department, a city councilwoman, Vanessa L. Gibson, told her colleagues that enough was enough.
She acknowledged that some council members, spurred by the movement to defund the police, were seeking to slash even more from the department’s budget. But she pointed out that her constituents did not agree.
They “want to see cops in the community,” Gibson said.
“They don’t want to see excessive force. They don’t want to see cops putting their knees in our necks,” she said. “But they want to be safe as they go to the store.”
Gibson is not a conservative politician speaking on behalf of an affluent district. She is a liberal Black Democrat who represents the West Bronx, and her stance reflects a growing ideological rift over policing in one of the country’s liberal bastions.
It is a clash across racial, ideological and generational lines that is dividing Black and Latino Council members in New York City. The discord illustrates how complicated the nation’s struggle with its legacy of racial oppression and discriminatory policing has become after the killing of George Floyd and the coronavirus crisis magnified long-standing and widespread racial disparities.
The debate helps explain why the movement in the Council to carry out major cuts to the Police Department has not succeeded.
Laurie Cumbo, a Black councilwoman from Brooklyn who is majority leader, compared calls to defund the police to “colonization” pushed by white progressives. Robert Cornegy Jr., a Black councilman also from Brooklyn, called the movement “political gentrification.”
This divide has widened in big cities across the United States, including in Minneapolis after Floyd was killed at the hands of the police.
Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, called defunding the police a “bourgeois liberal” solution for addressing systemic racism.
At the heart of the dispute in New York City is the effect of police officers in neighborhoods that have higher rates of discriminatory policing. The issue came into focus in the weeks leading to the July 1 deadline to pass the city’s budget, as Council leaders pledged to cut police funding by $1 billion in response to the wave of protests after Floyd’s death.
But a fissure opened when it became clear during negotiations that passing a budget with the $1 billion in cuts meant reducing police presence on the streets and eliminating school safety agents.
During the debate, Black and Latino council members representing poor and middle-class communities of color, including Brownsville, Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens, wanted to take a measured approach to cutting the police budget. White progressives, allied with some Latino council members from gentrifying and racially mixed neighborhoods and two Black council members, called for more aggressive reductions and reforms.
Gibson was among a handful of Black and Latino council members who said cutting the size of the police force would exacerbate conditions in neighborhoods already struggling with a rise in shootings and homicides, and with the health and economic disparities that were intensified by the coronavirus crisis.
Yet several progressive Black and Latino council members, like Antonio Reynoso of Brooklyn, who represents Williamsburg and Bushwick, were willing to reduce the number of law enforcement personnel and funnel the savings into other programs, such as mental health services.
“We have wrongly been told our whole lives that police keep us safe,” Reynoso said.
He and other progressive council members said that even during a pandemic, police enforcement of social-distancing rules showed racial disparities. Bringing more alternative resources to poorer communities, they said, was the best way to increase safety.
Cutting the Police Department’s budget also made sense in the context of an economic crisis, said Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park and other areas of Brooklyn. It could have enabled the Council to save other services that Mayor Bill de Blasio suspended or reduced, he said.
“You can’t just say, imagine if half the police force was gone,” Menchaca said. “You have to think about the things you get because of that.”
Figuring out how to handle violence is one of the most complicated parts of the effort to defund the police. Overall, serious crime in New York City has not jumped this year, but murders and shootings have: The city is on pace to surpass 800 shootings for the first time in three years.
There were 793 shootings as of Aug. 2, compared with 450 over the same period last year. The shootings have fueled a 31% increase in homicides: As of Aug. 2, 237 people had been killed, compared with 181 people by the same time in 2019.
The Center for Policing Equity, a think tank at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, released a road map last month to rethink how to allocate money for public safety. It suggested that law enforcement agencies focus on chronic offenders and that a deluge of nonpolice resources be sent to areas with high crime rates and high police interactions.
“You have to care about the violence of poverty and the violence of policing, which usually coincide,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, a founder and chief executive of the center.
By a 32-17 vote, the Council, with de Blasio’s support, eventually passed an $88.2 billion budget that included the reduction in police funding. But the $1 billion cut was mostly cosmetic, moving responsibilities from the Police Department to other agencies. The size of the police force will barely change. Nearly all the no votes were cast by white conservatives opposed to any reductions or white and Latino council members who wanted deeper cuts.
Corey Johnson, the Council speaker, said he would have preferred to cut more, but wanted to defer to his Black and Latino colleagues who raised concerns about the safety of their neighborhoods.
Gibson said she had seen the effect of what she described as overpolicing in her district in the West Bronx, adding that she knew how interactions between officers and young Black men influenced how the police are viewed.
She said she supported the Black Lives Matter movement and, as a councilwoman, had sponsored legislation to force the Police Department to disclose how it uses surveillance technology.
But her district has also had an uptick in violent crime, like the fatal shooting of Brandon Hendricks, a 17-year-old basketball star expected to attend St. John’s University. A week later, on July 5, Anthony Robinson was fatally shot while crossing the street with his 6-year-old daughter.
“I hate to say that’s our everyday reality, but it is,” Gibson said. “Many residents equate public safety with more policing. If I go to them and tell them there would be less police, they would not be happy.”
The rift between those who want to slash the police budget versus those who want to take a more cautious approach has grown in cities around the country, but seems pronounced in New York.
Some Council members accused Reynoso and others on his side of “being the product of gentrified” communities and being a part of a “white-led movement” to defund the police.
“The real message is we are not going to compromise the safety of our communites. There are a number of ways to achieve reform,” said I. Daneek Miller, co-chairman of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
Councilman Brad Lander, a white progressive from Brooklyn who voted no on the budget because he favored more cuts to police, said his views had been shaped by listening to people who have most directly experienced discriminatory policing.
“It is the responsibility of white people, progressive or not, to push yourself to listen carefully to Black voices,” said Lander.
Still, Lander said he respected the views of his Black and Latino colleagues who were concerned that cutting the police budget would hurt their community.
About a week after the Council’s vote, Councilwoman Diana Ayala, who represents East Harlem and the South Bronx, reflected on the movement to defund the police.
She said that she had received thousands of emails in favor of it, but that most came from people who lived outside her district or in another state. She also said she had heard from about 60 callers from East Harlem who had voiced their support, and “half were white or new to the community.”
Speaking at a memorial for Kenneth Brown, 35, who was shot and killed across from the Wagner Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, last month, Ayala recalled how her own son had been in the crossfire of a shooting.
“In communities like mine,” Ayala said, “we are not safe yet.”