Last week, the City Council adopted an $88 billion budget, $4.58 billion smaller than the budget that carried us through the most recent fiscal year. As we combat COVID-19 and plan for recovery, the decisions we make today will shape our children’s tomorrows — including, crucially, when it comes to public safety.
Throughout recent months, the devastation wrought by this pandemic has laid bare our city’s inequities. Communities without adequate access to health services have suffered the most. Workers in the health-care, retail and blue-collar industries, along with many civil servants, have borne the risks and the burdens to keep the city running.
We knew difficult budget decisions would be required this year, given the economic downturn. Then came the late May murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which drastically altered the conversation. It united a broad spectrum of Americans, and within days, protests sprang up across the nation to demand justice for the slain black man.
Unfortunately, here in the Big Apple, our Police Department used violence in response to those largely peaceful early demonstrations. For every action there is a reaction: From our cries for justice and the NYPD’s needlessly brutal response was born the movement to defund police, led by reform advocates and democratic socialists.
I’ve lived as a black man in New York City for six decades. I understand the activists’ sentiment and know their frustration all too well. I welcome their support for our community and our struggle.
But I have to emphasize one item above all: The police-reform movement must be led by communities of color and defined by our demand to be treated with dignity and respect and to be offered equal justice. Our ideas stand on their merits, and they aren’t encapsulated by the slogan “defund.”
If the past five months have taught us anything, it is that black and brown communities require additional city resources to combat existing inequities, not fewer. When cuts are made to the city’s budget, we know historically which demographic groups feel the impact first.
When professional advocates called for cuts to the NYPD, among the first targets for layoffs were school-safety agents and traffic-enforcement agents. These two groups within the department are composed mostly of people of color, as opposed to uniformed officers, detectives, sergeants and those in other positions.
Both school-safety and traffic-enforcement agents are responsible for the well-being of vulnerable New Yorkers, children and pedestrians. These workers serve important roles in supporting communities across the five boroughs.
Rather than defund the NYPD, this year’s adopted budget reduced its spending. Importantly, it also reassigned jurisdiction for various services from the NYPD to the city’s education, health and homeless-services departments. In the past weeks, the city and state have also banned chokeholds, created a more transparent disciplinary and recordkeeping process and required the reporting and evaluation of surveillance technologies.
Society has finally acknowledged that policing in black and brown communities has a harder, crueler edge that isn’t there elsewhere. Thanks to technological advances, this is now plain for all to see. This new awareness is wind in the sails of police-reform advocacy after decades of hard struggles.
With broad public support, we can build on efforts to improve public safety and police-community relations. We’ve come a long way since the heyday of stop-and-frisk and in recent years have emerged as the safest big city in America. But more can be done.
Reforming the NYPD isn’t a simple matter of dollars and cents. We also need police leadership willing and able to meet the needs and values of the communities officers serve.
Real reform requires public discourse, the strengthening of partnerships with community and crisis-management groups and changes in public policy. Well-policed communities are served by officers who value the communities they patrol and the dignity of their constituents. Those officers, in turn, receive the respect and support of the community, which enhances the work of law enforcement.
These are the ends we must work toward as we seek a more equitable brand of community-based policing to ensure all communities are treated with dignity and respect.
I. Daneek Miller, a Democrat, represents Southeast Queens as a member of the City Council and co-chair of its Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
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