Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
NYPD brass and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that they’re taking a page out of the Walmart playbook: hiring brand-new “greeters” at all 77 police precincts in the city, who will have the sole responsibility of welcoming people and guiding them to the right offices and officers for the services or paperwork they need.
“We get complaints about individuals walking in to a precinct, which can be very intimidating in nature to begin with, and not being greeted in a timely fashion,” NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes said in a press conference detailing the position. “This position is proof of the NYPD striving for excellence in the area of customer service.”
But while the city’s law enforcement leaders and politicians are hopeful about their latest effort to bridge the gap between officers and the communities they serve, advocacy groups who support defunding the police say it’s an empty gesture that further accentuates the issues they were protesting in the streets just last summer.
“It feels like PR,” said Kesi Foster, a leader at Make the Road NY, which advocates for immigrant and minority rights in city policy. “People are calling out the department for violently beating New Yorkers. Improving your customer service is how you’re going to address a department you said has been trained over and over in de-escalation and still took every opportunity they could to abuse protestors?”
At $5.4 billion, the NYPD already has the largest budget of any local law enforcement agency in the country, and calls to reduce the spending took off in the wake of George Floyd’s police murder. Mayor de Blasio seemed to agree with those concerns last year when he promised to slash NYPD spending by a billion dollars.
But with an uptick in crime over the last year, calls for budget cuts were no longer in vogue and the mayor allocated portions of the $4 billion the city got in federal pandemic aid to the NYPD. Ultimately, the budget increased by $200 million.
When asked how much the new positions would cost the city, the NYPD directed VICE News to a press conference about the new position, which didn’t address their cost. The department also did not respond to the criticism surrounding the roles.
But according to reform groups who hoped 2020 was the wake-up call city needed, the new roles, also known as “community guides,” are just the latest in a series of broken promises by the mayor and the New York City Council.
“We have officers retired and current who were at the Jan. 6 riots,” Foster said. “We have officers that are now being tied to the Oath Keepers. Precinct greeters aren’t going to address what is inherently a racist, public agency. This isn’t going to address officers violating people’s civil rights or abusing them.”
Nana Gyamfi, the director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, says instead the city responded to these grave concerns by handing off responsibilities that every officer should have to a single person.
“It’s indicative of how terrible you are as an organization that you don’t even know how to talk to people and that you have to hire someone to do that,” Gyamfi said. “It's like, we are trying to defund you people. Stop coming up with fake jobs. Learn how to talk to people like decent human beings.”
NYPD Chief Holmes, however, insists this role won’t diminish the expectations the department has of its officers but instead offers a more friendly experience for residents. The greeters will also receive five days of training.
But Jon McFarlane, a civil rights union leader with Vocal-NY, which is part of a coalition of police reform organizations collectively known as Communities United For Police Reform, called the idea “duplicative and repetitive.”
“That’s why you have desk sergeants. That’s why you have civilian employees,” McFarlane said. “There are already people in there with an obligation to further better relationships with the public. Why do we need an extra layer?”
McFarlane’s worst fear is that the position will become a way for departments to keep visitors from going to their precinct from anything damaging to the department’s reputation.
“They don’t want us there filing complaints about their officers,” he said. “Is that going to be handled by a greeter? All of these efforts to call this citizen outreach are nonsense. Am I that stupid to think that I actually need another layer of NYPD bureaucrats in a precinct? A precinct is no bigger than a Walgreens! How many people do I need inside of one building to greet me?”
The NYPD has already hired some of the precinct greeters, and three precincts in Manhattan have local residents in the role. But as the department scales up the position across the five boroughs, reform groups wonder how exactly the department hopes to keep NYPD employees impartial.
“You’re taking people who are aligned with the police, and giving them this job to play a bridge between them and the community,” she said. “But they’re not a neutral bridge; they’re hired by the police. They know where their bread is getting buttered, and it’s not by the community.”