New York City legislators early Wednesday voted to approve shifting one billion dollars from policing to education and social services in the coming year, acknowledging protesters’ demands to cut police spending – but falling short of what activists sought.
The vote came at an extraordinary moment when the nation’s biggest city is grappling with multibillion-dollar losses due to the coronavirus pandemic at the same time its leaders are under pressure to cut back on policing and invest more in community and social programmes.
Protesters have been camped outside City Hall, insisting that the city slash one billion dollars from the New York Police Department’s budget amid a nationwide campaign to “defund” police, a movement animated by outrage about the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.
The vote did little to assuage the demonstrators, however, many of whom said they intended to stay outside City Hall indefinitely.
“We are being gaslit,” said activist Jawanza James Williams. “This movement is about so much more than the one billion, and this means they don’t understand what we’re saying.”
Activists say they will not accept any plan that just shuffles dollars around without making what they see as a real difference in advancing racial justice and curbing the size and power of the nation’s largest police force.
Some of New York City’s Democratic representatives in the US Congress also said the move fell short of expectations.
“Defunding police means defunding police,” said Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It does not mean budget tricks or funny math.”
Five years ago, the City Council – then as now, overwhelmingly Democratic – insisted on adding nearly 1,300 additional officers to the New York Police Department. Now, Johnson has said he was wrong to support the expansion, and he lamented Tuesday that he had been unable to negotiate a bigger police budget cut.
“I am disappointed,” Johnson said at a news conference. “I did my best.”
The Mayor and I started this process FAR apart on shrinking the NYPD’s budget and footprint and bringing transformational change to the department.
The Council fought hard to get where we are, but I know this is just a starting point, not an ending point. We need to go farther. https://t.co/aW8TmiBe42
— NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson (@NYCSpeakerCoJo) July 1, 2020
Council budget leaders said they needed to balance calls to cut policing with residents’ concerns about safety.
“Many in my community have supported police and want police. They just want families and young people to be treated fairly,” said Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who represents a Bronx district where more than half of residents are Hispanic and about 40 percent are Black. Gibson said she had met, on Tuesday, relatives of a Bronx 17-year-old who was shot and killed Sunday, days after his high school graduation.
“I don’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that we don’t care and that we have not been working our behinds off to get to a place of equity,” while ensuring communities “are not left behind with crime, violence, illegal guns in our communities, no programmes, no activities, and no hope for a better tomorrow,” Gibson said.
New Yorkers will not be content with low hanging fruit, when what's needed is to uproot the tree.
Without an NYPD hiring freeze and a commitment to a just transition away from the current school safety model, I‘ll use my Charter power to prevent the execution of the budget. pic.twitter.com/ki1Al3DM04
— Office of the Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams (@nycpa) June 30, 2020
Under the plan, cuts would come from cancelling a nearly 1,200-person police recruiting class set for next month, although another class in October is scheduled to go forward, as well as halving overtime spending, redeploying officers from administrative functions to patrol and moving responsibility for school crossing guards and homeless outreach from police to other city agencies.
The police department also would give up control over public school security, which the NYPD took over from the Department of Education in 1998. The city has about 5,300 civilian school safety agents. De Blasio said details were being worked out, but the Education Department would train the agents.
Money would go instead to education, social services in communities hit hard by the virus, and summer youth programmes for more than 100,000 people.
Other cuts are being made to the NYPD’s capital budget, including cancelling plans to build a new police precinct in Queens and instead using the money to build a community centre.
“We all understand that we have to answer the concerns of this moment, that people want to see our society progress,” de Blasio, a Democrat, said at a news conference, while pledging that the changes would not compromise public safety.
The NYPD budget is now approximately six billion dollars, plus several billion dollars more in shared city expenses, such as pensions.
The new plan calls for an ambitious, nearly $300m cut in police overtime. The department paid out $115m in overtime just during recent protests over Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis.
The focus of the cuts is day-to-day overtime for such tasks as testifying in court or completing paperwork.
The discussion comes as the city has been grappling with a nine-billion-dollar revenue loss because of the coronavirus.