The police reform that wasn’t

After George Floyd was killed, New York City only pretended to change policing.

NYPD officers in May 2020.

NYPD officers in May 2020. Steve Sanchez Photo/Shutterstock

Wednesday, Nov. 25, marks six months from the day Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd. Floyd’s dying cry of “I can’t breathe,” caught on video as his neck was crushed against the pavement by Officer Derek Chauvin, lit the nation on fire.

In New York City, residents of all races demanded action from our elected officials. For a city that thought of itself as enlightened and progressive, despite a long history of police brutality and racism, it felt like the time for change had come.

Six months later, that change has not come. Even the lowest-hanging fruit of police reform gathers dust in the City Council legislative drafting office. For six months, politicians have engaged in a carefully calculated effort to seem diligent, passing empty, symbolic bills and issuing insincere press statements. In the meantime, the NYPD became even more defiant, its officers empowered by the realization that no matter what they did, no matter who they hurt, the system protected them. They are, it now seems, too big, and perhaps too dangerous, to reform.

The city’s biggest feint toward change was the supposed “billion-dollar budget cut.” On June 30, the City Council voted to reduce the NYPD’s budget by $1 billion – or so the headlines read. In a statement, a group of Council members, including Council Speaker Corey Johnson, called the cuts an “unprecedented reduction… show(ing) our commitment towards moving away from the failed policing policies of the past.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio claimed the cuts “answer the concerns of the moment.”

The cuts were a cheap mirage, a knock-off hologram of reform. The endlessly touted $1 billion figure was derived not from cuts to current NYPD funding, but from the entirely theoretical planned future budget. Right off the bat, compared to current funding, the figure gets reduced to $420 million.

And even that $420 million is phony. Much of the budget cuts depended on shifting spending on programs such as school safety officers from the NYPD to other city agencies. Here’s how big a con this was: mere days after the vote, de Blasio confirmed that no, those funds would not be shifted for the foreseeable future.

For those who follow city politics, another “cut,” setting a new cap on NYPD overtime, was immediately comical. Normal people believe a “cap” means a hard stop, an amount that cannot be breached, like the cap on your water bottle that keeps all the water inside. But the NYPD’s overtime cap is less of a cap and more of a polite suggestion. Sure enough, the overtime cap is set to be blown by $400 million, thus wiping out the spending cuts to policing almost entirely.

Other reforms have been equally illusory. The NYPD touted the June disbanding of anti-crime units, made up of plainclothes officers who didn’t respond to 911 calls but rather massed in “crime hot spots” and developed a reputation for harassing, stopping, and frisking disproportionately black people, as a “seismic shift.” By September, anti-crime units were back on the street, performing the same duties, but in uniform. Plainclothes officers have continued to make the sort of aggressive arrests that had bystanders wondering if they just saw a kidnapping.

The most shameless behavior from the mayor involved the so-called “chokehold ban.” When de Blasio signed the bill into law in July, he called it a “powerful day… and it’s a moment when you can feel change coming.” But chokeholds have been banned by the NYPD since the 1990s. This new bill made a chokehold by a cop a misdemeanor crime, if performed during an arrest, and with a carveout for an officer using “self-defense.” It’s difficult to imagine a weaker bill, and one more prone to the same enforcement problems as the old chokehold ban.

 The NYPD erupted over this mild reform. The PBA called it “insane.” To the Chief of Detectives, it was “dangerous.” Threats of a “blue flu” – a mass sick-call in lieu of an illegal strike – hovered in the air. The City Council caved, and fast. The weak chokehold bill was significantly weakened by the City Council in August – in diaphragm compression cases, like the one that killed Floyd, now injury has to result for a crime to have occurred, and the District Attorney has the added burden of showing an officer acted “recklessly.” (To those non-cops who are curious, yes, it is still highly illegal for you to choke anyone, injury resulting or not.) De Blasio didn’t say whether this, too, was a “powerful day.”

The city’s refusal to act has been particularly galling because it is occurring as the NYPD doubles down on violence. In protest after protest, the NYPD has acted like an unaccountable mob. Even without the impetus of a nationwide protest movement and an engaged populace, one would expect the city to hold officers accountable for at least the most egregious incidents. But hours of video evidence of shocking misconduct have been insufficient to move our politicians. In the last six months, not a single NYPD officer has been fired. In fact, a review of published records shows that only one officer has been fired for misconduct in the last six years: Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner. The only reported discipline imposed has been temporary suspensions and transfers, and any further discipline will not come for years. The NYPD acts unaccountable because it is.

There is no indication that this pattern of inaction will change. Advocates, including the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board, of which I am a member, are pushing for disciplinary authority to be removed from the Police Commissioner, who regularly and routinely ignores punishment recommendations from the Civilian Complaint Review Board. This – a far cry from defunding – targeting only so-called “bad cops,” should be uncontroversial. And yet, the mayor has opposed even this reform, telling NY1 that he “respects the notion of the police commissioner making the final decision”.

Both de Blasio and Johnson have supported the next big fake reform: a “disciplinary matrix” for police misconduct, which contains a long list of “mitigating factors,” with penalties that can be rejected or modified by the police commissioner. The matrix is custom-tailored for political support: it binds nobody, creates no new rules, has NYPD buy-in, and is nearly entirely symbolic. Expect to hear about it a lot in 2021.

Any urgency that once existed has dissipated – the City Council and mayor appear to believe that they have withstood and outlasted the Black Lives Matter movement.

Here in New York, the change some of us thought possible in the wake of George Floyd’s terrible death never arrived. City Council members and the mayor have performed a calculated ruse to defy their constituents – to seem like they are on the right side of history, while taking every action to support the status quo. It is shameful.