New York City Council

Opinion: Reduce the size and scope of the NYPD and DOC

Public safety depends on It.

This week, controversy engulfed the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, of which I am a member. At issue: the caucus’ decision to tighten itself up from a label anyone can claim regardless of their policy positions, their record as legislators, or even their attendance at caucus meetings – into a coherent political unit based on shared beliefs. Several of my colleagues who don’t share one of these beliefs, that we should “reduce the size and scope of the NYPD and Department of Correction,” understandably chose to leave the caucus.

The caucus’ leadership was prepared for that to happen, as Rep. Pramila Jayapal was when the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which she chairs, adopted a similar set of requirements in 2020. As she said then, “I just would rather have people who are really committed to the Progressive Caucus in the caucus and participating rather than sort of just having it as a label.” It only stands to reason.

Spotting an opportunity to demagogue, the mayor took to CNN to condemn the caucus. “That is not who we are as Democrats,” he said. “We're pro-public safety.”

His words ring hollow. Since coming into office, he has repeatedly defunded practically every agency and initiative with a demonstrated track record of achieving the public safety outcomes we all need and deserve: public schools, libraries, homeless support, mental health services, parks … the list goes on and on. 

His fiscal year 2024 preliminary budget calls for still more brutal cuts. Over $50 Million from the Department of Homeless Services, over $200 Million from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, nearly $300 Million from the Department of Education, nearly $600 Million from the Department of Social Services… you get the picture. Far from being “pro-public safety,” this austerity agenda puts us all in more danger.

Let’s take an example. When one of our neighbors experiences mental decompensation in public, who should be dispatched to maintain public safety? As the experience of Denver STAR, the Portland Street Response Team, and other evidence-based programs in cities across the country shows, it’s trauma-informed mental health professionals and peer specialists, not police. All available evidence shows that dispatching police actually increases, rather than reduces, the risk of violence. Where police are trained to detect threats and contain them by force, appropriate responders are trained to assess needs and meet them with compassion. The “pro-public safety” way forward is clear: shifting mental health outreach to the correct agency, thereby necessarily reducing the size and scope of the NYPD, which has wrongly been tasked with this body of work.

That’s not the only field where a response rooted in policing and incarceration is the less effective option. Homeless outreach ought to be performed by social workers. Speeding violations ought to be assessed by cameras. School conflicts ought to be mediated by counselors. Even in cases of violence, organizations like Common Justice, which are grounded in restorative justice practices, have a better track record than jail of changing people’s behavior and fostering healing. In each case, taking the approach with superior public safety outcomes involves reducing the size and scope of our system of policing and punishment.

Not only aren’t the NYPD and DOC the most effective agencies at keeping people safe, they carry their own threats of danger. Last year saw not only a record number of civilians killed by police officers throughout the U.S., but also a record number of deaths in captivity on Rikers Island, the hellhole in my district. If we are to be truly “pro-public safety,” we cannot continue to let these agencies act without consequence and grow without limit.

Some of us are committed to fighting the mayor’s austerity agenda, and his continual expansion of the size and scope of the NYPD and DOC. Don’t let him mislead you, though: it’s not because we don’t care about public safety. It’s because we are actually courageous enough to do what needs to be done to achieve it.