No New Cops: Strong Communities Make Policing Obsolete

Late last week the Daily News reported that NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton foresaw about a million less police interactions with the public in 2015. A few liberals and 'progressives' applauded this as a shift away from Broken Windows, the disputed policing philosophy responsible for an explosion of police interactions over the last few decades.

"I'm not interested in quantity, I'm interested in quality," Bratton told a Daily News Editorial Board more than happy to uncritically regurgitate his words to the public.

Putting aside that Bratton has been Broken Windows' most consistent champion from New York to Los Angeles or that those declines are mostly due to lower self-reported Stop and Frisk figures that began to decline during the last Bloomberg year, one need only look back to January of this year to when Bratton was scolding his own police officers to return to "normal numbers" during a work slowdown to realize he has and will always be about quantity and numbers--regardless of what he tells the press.

Which brings up another interesting set of numbers everyone is eying right now: the NYPD headcount.

At just under 35,000, the New York City Police Department is bar none the largest police department in the United States. It's also one of the beefiest in terms of police-to-citizen ratio. At a time of historically low crime, it wouldn't seem there'd be any reason to add to it. In fact, as the headcount has dropped from it's all-time high of about 41,000 during 2001-2002, crime has also dropped.

Across all of the seven major crime categories crime has gone down since 2001. Murders, robberies and burglaries have gone down almost half. Car thefts are a fraction of what they once were. And this is just from 2001. If you go back further, the drops are even more dramatic. But 2001 is the key year since most media stories on the current headcount make sure to compare it with 2001, the year of the highest headcount, so as to frame today's department as being somehow small or understaffed. But the headcount history is more complicated when you trace the department size back before David Dinkins' Safe Streets Safe City initiative, which added thousands of cops to the department.

Today the city is undoubtedly safer than it was at the tail end of the Crack era. Of course the police department and their cheerleaders will credit cops, and only cops, with these lower crime figures. However, most serious observers will note that dramatic declines in crime were an international phenomenon that can't be clearly associated with any specific law enforcement push. Professor Harry Levine from Queens College (my alma mater) pointed out to me that the crime declines even began before Bratton and former mayor Rudy Giuliani even began to implement Broken Windows policing, which is often also credited with the crime decline.

But let's look at those numbers, for Bratton's sake.

Obviously whatever reason(s) that one might use to explain the crime decline, the headcount to crime rate comparison undercuts a narrative that would have you believe more cops mean less crime. Crime went down as the headcount number went down from 41,000 14 years ago to today's 35,000 count. Let me repeat that: crime went down as the size of the force shrank.

Remember that when a politician gets on his or her soap box to argue we need more cops to fight crime. Actually, no need to look any further than the Bronx or Spanish Harlem, areas oversaturated with aggressive cops. There you might catch Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the city council, and Vanessa Gibson, chair of the public safety committee making that questionable case.

With no real bonafide crime-based rationale for more cops (which research shows is faulty logic on its own), these self-described 'progressive' councilmembers are pointing to 'community policing'. Last year at about this same time they were pointing to a short-lived spike in crime in select communities of color. They've since changed their story for extra boots on the ground, which doesn't even quite square with Bratton's city council testimony arguing more cops are needed for ever-expanding counterterrorism plans. This year he had the audacity to propose, over our objections, the extra cops for a specialized group to fight ISIS and police protesters. Last year he matter-of-factly announced cops trained for counterterrorism were being deployed into NYCHA housing.

Ironically, the head of the police department and poor New Yorkers of color alike understand, in their own ways, that cops operating as if in a war zone isn't simply hyperbole--it's reality.

Still for some it might be surprising that those clamoring to give Bratton more soldiers in his army are 'progressive' lawmakers. It does, on the other hand, make the work around organizing a pushback much clearer, if not easier. Seeing these Democrats align themselves with Bratton, for reasons of politics, not safety, we look towards each other for solutions. In doing so we know that the alternative to an expanding, militarized, Broken Windows-obsessed police department isn't some other policing strategy--it's stronger communities. We want stronger communities. Strong communities are safe communities. The funds for those proposed 1,000 cops, estimated between $94-$120 Million for FY 2016 (and hundreds of Millions thereafter), should go towards resources that work towards those ends.

Back to numbers again, please.

The hundreds of Millions of city tax dollars that will be tied into a larger police department are funds that can't go to a youth summer job program (currently underfunded), mental health services (desperately needed), true affordable housing (not those tied to real estate developrs), NYCHA (perennially underfunded), or even a violence intervention program (currently funded at a fraction--about $12 Million--of what the 1k cop push demands).

Of course the radical demands of the poor are rarely taken seriously even in our 'liberal' big city. Those like Brooklyn councilmember Jumaane Williams, who says 1,000 more or 1,000 less cops doesn't really matter either way, would have you believe $94 Million dollars doesn't mean anything. He and others assume we're unaware the NYPD budget is already at least $4.75 Billion (with a B) or that we don't know what opportunity costs are. The same could be said of a vague New York Times editorial which didn't take a clear position on the headcount push but did call Viverito's thousand cop craze "reasonable".

This week Let 'Em Play, a student and teacher led group advocating for more funding for high school sports, protested loudly outside of Viverito's district office in the South Bronx. The week prior they unfurled a banner that read "#CivilRightsMatter" inside the city council chambers, disrupting an education committee hearing. The students, mostly from the Bronx and virtually all young men and women of color, have for years been pointing out that small schools serving communities of color have little to no athletic programs, unlike their white counterparts in more affluent districts (some of which have up to 44 different sports in a single school).

Those calls fell on deaf ears and what resulted was the powerful image of young people with their fists in the air outside of city hall. Daniel Dromm, chair of the education committee and another supposed 'progressive', called their actions "inappropriate".

Let 'Em Play's David Garcia-Rosen, history teacher and dean at International High School, could barely get the city to fund the alternative public school league he organized from scratch to serve these students, known as the Small Schools Athletic League. Last year the SSAL got a one-time $250,000 city grant for the program with school principals having to make up the difference through their own discretionary funds. After last week's protests Garcia-Rosen was suspended by the Department of Education.

Our priorities in a nutshell: there's barely any money for this sports program and for these kids to the extent that they have taken to walkouts and protesting after school--and yet there's hundreds of millions for more cops.

This city should take it's lead from these young people and hit the streets. These are the types of injustice we'll be marching for this Friday, April 3rd after our #NoNewNYPD rally. How far could $94-$120 Milllion annually go towards school sports or to keep a library from closing two weekdays out of the week? It's likely that the kids that we can't find resources and programs for at their schools or in their neighborhoods, those'll be the same ones cops will be arresting for things like jumping the turnstile.

Predictably, local papers from Staten Island and the west end of Rockaway (coincidentally two of the most racist areas of New York I've ever been to), have decried these ideas as being 'anti-police'. The Staten Island Advance, which has had a front row seat to the transgressions of the notorious 120th precinct (home to Eric Garner's killer) described our #NoNewNYPD demands as "laughable". Rockaway's Wave newspaper wrote a front page story about how locals (in the whiter section of the Rockaways) overwhelmingly want more cops. The writer of that story, headlined #YesNewNYPD, also the editor, took particular umbrage at the fact that the Rockaway Youth Task Force, supporters of the Safety Beyond Policing campaign, would want resources other than a gun and a badge.

That RYTF, a well-known mostly black youth group based in the eastern end that advocates for youth jobs and has been hailed for their disaster recovery work, would have an opinion on how their community is served is, well, a scandal to some.

The real scandal is that we have to continually fight for every shred of investment. The real scandal is that in 2015 in a major urban city Black and Latino children are protesting to have equitable resources. The real scandal is of course the unfettered political power of the NYPD and the elected officials that cow-tow to them. Pat Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, has said he wants the headcount up many thousands. Viverito wants to get him and Bratton started with a thousand.

We won't let that happen.