Reimagining policing in an age of discontent

Demonstrators call for cuts in funding for the New York City Police Department during a protest in Manhattan, June 5, 2021.
Demonstrators call for cuts in funding for the New York City Police Department during a protest in Manhattan, June 5, 2021.
Ben Von Klemperer/Shutterstock
Demonstrators call for cuts in funding for the New York City Police Department during a protest in Manhattan, June 5, 2021.

Reimagining policing in an age of discontent

Advocates seeking to reform the New York City Police Department need to consider how it is funded and its institutional composition.
October 28, 2021

Last year was a watershed moment for racial justice in America. Sparked by the deaths of Black citizens at the hands of the police, the Black Lives Matter movement became by some accounts one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in the nation’s history.

There was an increased spotlight on the legacy of racial terror that police and other elements of the criminal legal system routinely inflict on Black bodies and Black communities. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were among the high profile cases in 2020 that catalyzed calls to “defund the police.” Some questioned the need for police departments altogether, advocating for their abolition and for shifting police investments into other programs and services to help communities better address public safety. Sequestered by COVID-19 and buffeted by a divisive political climate, Americans seemed poised to dramatically shift their thinking on race and policing. However, a year later police budgets are on the rise.

If we are going to truly reimagine policing we will need an approach that begins by understanding how policing is funded and the institutional arrangements that comprise what community members experience from the police. We will need to deal with the tension between the benefits that community members derive and demand from the police, such as an immediate response when they are called, their ability to arrest law breakers and reduce criminal activity in specific places and timeframes, with the desire not to have our freedoms limited or be subjected to rude or downright racist behavior by police. These may seem like irreconcilable differences but they are not. Advocates have focused on the racist behavior of police officers but need to better understand how the internal power arrangements of the modern policing infrastructure function in order to secure deeper and sustained reforms.

While a slim plurality of Americans trust the police, most of us don't think they treat community members fairly. Trust in police declined by 5% in 2020, it has since rebounded to 51%, in 2021. A recent USA/Ipsos poll found that Americans have deep concerns about fairness in policing. Only 22% of poll respondents indicated that Americans were treated fairly by police, a considerable decline from 34%, in 2014. Of the white respondents polled, 54% held this view, as did 77% of Black respondents. The growing lack of trust in how police treat community members is a central challenge for policing. 

If municipal budgets are an expression of what a community values, then policing is valued as a service, even if there is concern about how the police operate. Seventy-seven percent of Gallup poll respondents, surveyed between June 1 and July 5, want more police deployed and 70% support increasing police budgets. They also overwhelmingly rejected the defunding of the police movement. Only 22% of respondents supported the defund movement. Advocates have failed to present actionable alternatives to current police 911 response capacity that can effectively step in to address violent crime and quality of life issues. Eliminating or reducing policing without an alternate response capacity is not popular with voters and faces stiff resistance by the various power centers within policing. 

Within Black and brown communities there is strong support for reforming, not defunding, police. One poll taken in June 2020, in the midst of racial justice protests, found that 64% of Black respondents agreed that, “Police departments have a problem with race, but the problem can be fixed by reforming the existing system,” as did 54% of white respondents. Only 33% of Black respondents and 23% of white respondents viewed defunding the police as a viable option. 

Police budgets are growing again. Last fiscal year, in response to the racial justice and defunding the police movements, New York City eliminated a billion dollars in NYPD funding, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. But a closer look at these reductions indicates that this was not the case. In its recent analysis of last year’s NYPD budget the Citizens Budget Committee found that the actual cuts resulted in only $322 million in reductions. The cuts to overtime and shifting of school safety back to the Department of Education that were highlighted by the Mayor did not materialize as planned. The actual overtime spending was 77% over budget and the school safety transition has not been fully implemented. 

A lot of attention is paid to the NYPD’s operating budget, which for the 2020 Fiscal Year, was $5.6 billion, supporting a total staff headcount of around 54,000 people, more than 36,000 of whom were sworn police officers. What is less well known is that there are other central costs, which include pension payments to retired officers, debt service and the cost of fringe benefits for current staff, according to the CBC. This does not include capital expenditures for things like surveillance cameras or new facilities. These expenses cannot be reduced in the near term substantially. 

In the City’s 2022 Fiscal Year, the NYPD’s adopted budget will grow by 7.5%, bringing it up to $10.4 billion, according to the CBC. Some of the growth will be for “new needs,” including proposed increases to the department’s civilian headcount to support the hiring of 180 community assistants to serve as liaisons between the police and communities at the precinct level, and eight community ambassadors to “facilitate communications of local concerns” to police leadership. Despite this growth, if you talk to police leaders they will say they do not have the manpower to do the job that community members expect of them and they are more of a reactive force, less able to prevent crime or engage in community partnerships. This is bad news for community members who expect the police to respond to their immediate needs, no matter if these needs involve a shooting or a person pissing in their doorway.

Reformers need to articulate a big tent vision of policing that is aspirational but can also bring along justice-impacted voices, constituencies within law enforcement and the average voter. Calls to defund the police present an aspirational vision but have failed to garner broad public support. That is because of a fundamental failure to address the practical realities of what the police are and how the public’s perceptions of what they want from police are shaped. What the fight over the NYPD budget tells us is that there are powerful institutional constituencies that work to protect the status quo. It may also tell us that voters have less of an appetite for police accountability and reform than many of us would have hoped. 

The NYPD comprises several constituencies and like most large public bureaucracies these constituencies fight for power and influence to derive benefits for their clans. While public safety is the stated mission of the department, the latent functions are more concerned with delivering jobs and benefits to these various constituencies. For example, police unions are very influential politically and within the department. They shape their members' roles and can limit the effectiveness of any attempt by NYPD management to deliver more efficient and effective services. Unions see their role as protecting their members while limiting accountability and securing the best benefits for their members.

Voters are concerned about public safety and fed a steady diet of violent crime stories in the media, even if the reality does not match the concern. While murders have unfortunatly seen record increases in the last 18 months, the national murder rates are well below the highs of the 1990s. Any effort to convince voters to reimagine policing must address the perceptions that crime is worse than it actually is. Oddly, activists might find an ally in police management and some elected leaders who try and often fail to make the case that perception is not reality when it comes to crime. If voters perceive that crime is bad they are more easily influenced to accept “tough on crime” policies that too often fail to produce actual public safety benefits and are racist in their operation and result. 

The old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows suggests that some police reform activists, the new City Council and the next mayor might find common cause in reimagining public safety together. To do this they will need to articulate a bold vision for policing, present a counter-narrative to the public’s heightened perception of crime and deliver real reductions in crime, especially violent crime. This effort must include making sure human services can deliver rapid interventions that are effective in situations like mental health crises where we are asking police not to serve as first responders. Activists will also need to support efforts by the department’s management to institute improved community policing efforts, enhanced constituent feedback and response strategies, even as they call for more police accountability and shifting funds from the department to impactful human services. 

Crime has declined in the city for much of the last 20+ years, but the NYPD’s budget has grown by 87% since 2000. The only way to achieve real savings in the long term is to reduce the overall headcount of civilian and uniformed officers to a level that can still deliver effective public safety. This requires a top to bottom review of the department’s mission, personnel practices and a closer look at its collective bargaining agreements. In doing this there could be a real effort to improve the NYPD’s working conditions and bolster pay and benefits for officers and civilian workers at the department in exchange for shifting its goals toward a vision of public safety driven by data, community partnerships and effective social services. This may cost more in the short term but might bend the department’s culture to one that protects Black lives and sustainably improves public safety.

The next mayor will have an opportunity to reform policing. They will have a chance to do this at the negotiating table with the city’s police unions and through big tent public policy initiatives that bring in voices from the community and the new City Council. Outside of the halls of power, activists must keep organizing toward building a new public safety consensus and one that elevates the voices of people who have been most impacted by the city’s criminal legal system. This won’t happen overnight, and activists must be willing to work creatively to present a human centered approach to justice that inspires the public imagination.

There is little faith in government these days and sometimes it feels like we have little faith in each other. I am an optimist. I believe our differences can be a source of strength. We must be willing to hear each other out, invite marginalized voices to the table, question our own closely held beliefs and use data to drive the change in policing we seek. 

Chris Watler
is a lifelong New Yorker with over 30 years of nonprofit leadership experience working to advance justice reform, workforce development and youth development in New York and nationally.