Did de Blasio actually defund the NYPD?

The mayor and the City Council did some fuzzy math to arrive at $1B in cuts.

Signs and tents at the Occupy City Hall protest where protestors are demanding that the NYPD be defunded.

Signs and tents at the Occupy City Hall protest where protestors are demanding that the NYPD be defunded. Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

After weeks of demands by police reform activists, the New York City government cut the New York City Police Department’s budget by an unprecedented amount early Wednesday morning.

But in approving the city’s fiscal year 2021 budget, did Mayor Bill de Blasio shift more than $1 billion away from the police as he claimed? Or was it really a more modest amount, bolstered by budget trickery? A deeper look at the numbers suggests that the mayor’s $1 billion total relies on overly optimistic assumptions and a flexible understanding of what counts as NYPD spending. But the criminal justice reform advocates decrying the adopted budget probably aren’t taking enough credit for influencing a budget that, even under the strictest reading, reduces NYPD spending by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Analyzing the city budget is always difficult – adjustments are made mid-year and costs are shifted between agencies. It can make even the most budget-literate analysts go cross-eyed. And there’s a surprising amount of subjectivity inherent in discussing the budget, something the mayor can use to his benefit when he’s trying to explain how he arrived at $1 billion in police budget cuts. Here are some of the most pressing questions about what happened to the NYPD’s budget.

How much was the budget cut?

Last year’s fiscal year 2020 budget allocated $5.61 billion to the NYPD’s expense budget. And when de Blasio presented his executive budget in April, he proposed keeping spending at about the same level – $5.64 billion. But in the past couple months, the mayor and the City Council agreed to serious cuts to the NYPD. In the fiscal year 2021 budget the mayor signed Wednesday morning, the NYPD has been allocated $5.22 billion. That’s a 6.8% reduction from the year before, or $382 million less.

How did they cut that much?

By doing a mix of things. The city hopes to save $55 million this year by cutting one of the four annual classes of new recruits. That’s 1,163 fewer officers that will need to be paid. The city will save another $5 million by putting a hiring freeze on “non-safety positions,” $12 million by canceling or reducing some outside contracts and another $5 million on delaying the purchase of some new vehicles. But the biggest savings – $355.2 million, according to the mayor’s office – is reducing the amount the department plans to spend on overtime payments to officers.

That sounds too good to be true.

Yes, the NYPD is notorious for exceeding its overtime budget. Even though the NYPD’s budget was $5.6 billion in fiscal year 2019, the department ended up spending $5.98 billion by the end of the year – largely thanks to overtime. It was the same situation in fiscal year 2020, which just ended on June 30. The NYPD’s budget was $5.61 billion and it is projected to actually spend a record $6.08 billion.

Will that just happen again this year?

Maybe. Reporters questioned de Blasio about it at his budget press conference Tuesday, and he promised that the NYPD’s management is better now than it’s ever been. Newly appointed NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea “is a very smart data-driven modern manager,” de Blasio said. “He is going to find ways to make things happen. I’m just convinced.”

Got it. But wait, you said the budget was only cut by $382 million?

Yes, but there were also a few major cost shifts that the mayor is counting toward that $1 billion total. Certain programs like school safety agents – uniformed officers who don’t carry guns and patrol the city’s public schools – will be moved under the Department of Education. That alone will shift $307 million from the NYPD … eventually. The change did not appear to be reflected in the budget signed Wednesday, and the mayor’s office has said the transition will be phased in over time. That’s also true of the $42 million saved by moving the expense for school crossing guards out of the NYPD’s budget. The city will also move some employees who work in homeless outreach out of the NYPD, saving the department about $4.5 million.

So $382 million in cuts and $354 million in cost shifts … that’s not even $750 million. How did the mayor get to $1 billion?

The city spends more on policing than just what’s included in the NYPD’s expense budget. An analysis from the Citizens Budget Commission found that the city is actually spending about $10.9 billion on the NYPD. About half of that isn’t included in the NYPD’s budget, but rather it’s centrally allocated spending on costs like pensions and health insurance for officers. The mayor’s office is also counting cuts to these areas to get to the $1 billion total.

How much is getting cut there?

About $163 million, according to the mayor’s office. That’s the money saved by not hiring one class of new officers, but it also counts all of the pension costs and fringe benefits for school safety agents and crossing guards. The city will still be spending that money, but it’s no longer attributable to the NYPD.

Are there any other budget tricks?

Definitely. The mayor is also hoping to increase the NYPD’s revenue next year by $42 million by getting traffic enforcement agents to write more tickets. It’s not clear why the mayor would count that as part of a $1 billion budget cut, since it doesn’t actually decrease spending.

Sounds like the mayor was getting a bit desperate to hit the magical $1 billion number.

It does seem that way. In fact, the number is such a stretch that New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson refused to say the city had cut that much. He and other council leaders had agreed during negotiations to set $1 billion in cuts as the goal, but in his Tuesday press conference, Johnson said that he and the council had fallen short. And police reform activists who had pushed for the cuts seemed to be in universal agreement on that point.

“We won’t fall for Mayor de Blasio and the City Council’s funny math or lies to try to trick New Yorkers into thinking they made $1 billion in direct cuts to the NYPD’s almost $6 billion FY21 expense budget,” read a statement from Anthonine Pierre, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a group that had called for the cuts.

So why aim for $1 billion at all?

The demand for $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD came from advocacy groups, which seemed to dominate the discourse. And in the midst of ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism, it makes sense that Democratic politicians like de Blasio and Johnson would want to align themselves with the mass movement. But the mayor, the council speaker – and admittedly, the media – may have gotten too caught up in the numbers. The $1 billion number was always somewhat arbitrary, and more of a means to an end. Advocates’ real goals were broader, and included changing the way that officers interact with the public. They were bound to be disappointed by anything less than radical change.