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​​Does New York City Really Need 1,000 More Cops?

Police reformers aren't exactly thrilled about the idea after a year defined by brutality and protests.
April 17, 2015, 5:40pm
Photo via Flickr user Diana Robinson

It's safe to say that the past year and a half has been a bit nuts for the New York Police Department.

Since Bill de Blasio took office as NYC mayor last year, his appointment of Bill Bratton—the forefather of "broken windows," a theory of law enforcement that targets low-level infractions often involving black and Hispanic men—as NYPD commissioner has come under fire from criminal justice reform activists. Last summer, the city was consumed with the videotaped chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. Protests in Ferguson were mirrored by protests on Broadway, both before and after both officers involved were walked away from the incidents without being charged with crimes.

One bad story after another—usually involving police brutality—made headlines, and reformers continued to call for changes that Mayor de Blasio supported as a candidate. So when the New York City Council announced on Tuesday that funding for an additional 1,000 NYPD officers would be included in its next budget proposal, the response wasn't exactly unpredictable.

In a letter sent to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who argued last week that the hiring was necessary "to do effective community policing [and] at the same time we continue to demand reforms," dozens of civil rights groups demanded that her proposal be dropped from the budget immediately.

The additional officers would cost $68.7 million in 2016 and over $300 million spread out over the following three years, but the proposal also calls for overtime to be reduced by $50 million. The coalition, which includes Communities United for Police Reform and the NAACP, argues the money should be spent on community development alternatives like programs for the youth and homeless.

"Adding 1,000 new positions within the police department not only raises significant concerns for communities that have yet to see public accountability for the department," the letter reads, "but it also would come at the expense of more beneficial long-term investments in the safety and well-being of our neighborhoods.

"While there has been a focus on the issue of 'police-community relations,' there has not been enough attention paid to addressing the concrete and underlying issues of discriminatory and abusive policing," it continues.

It's natural that Bratton would support hiring additional officers, but Mark-Viverito has been a staunch critic of the NYPD's practices, both in her own district of East Harlem and citywide. As a council member, she voted for the Community Safety Act in 2013, a bill that established the position of Inspector General—who is tasked with monitoring the NYPD—along with measures to limit discrimination by beat cops. Unlike de Blasio, she dedicated a significant portion of her first State of the City address in February to police reform.

"We cannot continue to lock up those accused of low level, nonviolent offenses without recognizing the dire, long-term consequences to them and to our city," she said in that speech.

Now many of her own supporters and other reform advocates are asking a simple question: Wait, why do we need more cops again?

"Listen to what very good people, like Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James, are putting forward," Bob Gangi, the head of PROP, a police reform group who advocates for a "mend it before you extend it" policy, told me. "A thousand more cops? What do you think they're gonna do? Besides hand out more arrests and tickets to people who are supposed to be 'your constituents.'" (Last year, nearly 400,000 summonses were handed out to New Yorkers.)

The NYPD is already the largest municipal police force in the country, with over 34,500 officers in uniform on a daily basis. And the force has 51,000 employees in total, making it larger in raw numbers than the FBI. And that's actually a decrease: There are 6,000 fewer cops now than there were before September 11—a day that single handedly turned the NYPD into a highly sophisticated global counterterrorism agency.

The decrease in cops is pegged to the decades-long decrease in crime. And with murders at record lows in New York, logic would seem to suggest that the next budget shrink the force rather than grow it. But according to Eugene O'Donnell, a former Brooklyn cop and prosecutor at the Jay College of Criminal Justice, it's not always crime that justifies hiring. Instead, the problem of immediate response needs to be addressed, especially when the city receives millions of 9/11 and 3-1-1 calls a year.

"There is a case they are needed not so much for crime fighting—the city is generally super safe—but the demands for police service via 911, 311 and in person are unrelenting," O'Donnell told me. "Some precincts have a handful of officers leading to situations where 'they get there when they get there,' even for priority calls."

Further, the force is poised to shed thousands of officers to retirement in the years ahead. The rampant hiring of cops under the Giuliani administration in the 1990s, when crime was much higher and broken windows was first implemented under Bratton's first stint as commissioner, is now coming up against the reality of pensions that kick in after 20 years on the job.

According to Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant, that could squeeze the Department dry.

"A thousand cops is a drop in the bucket and will not even cover the attrition the NYPD is going through now," he said. "They will need to hire 5,000 just to keep up with attrition."

Giaccalone added that the thousand officers wouldn't even hit the streets for another year, so whatever "community policing" the Speaker is after may take a while. "When they put a class of recruits in, it takes six months to train them. Then they get field training for a few months. You are looking at close to a year before these rookies are really ready to do police work."

Now, strangely enough, the one major roadblock is the person who has found himself under attack from the NYPD more than any other city official: de Blasio, who, along with Bratton, blocked a similar hiring proposal last year. The Mayor has said he doesn't believe there's a need for a thousand more cops; his office didn't include that money in its preliminary budget earlier this year either. Instead, the mayor has stumped on behalf of retraining efforts, body cameras, and, this week, court reform. But that was also before Mark-Viverito, his strongest legislative ally, and Commissioner Bratton—his best chance of keeping peace with the boys in blue after months of internal revolt—demanded more.

Amy Spitalnick, a budget spokeswoman for the de Blasio administration, said that the mayor's office will release its Executive Budget this spring, and looks forward to negotiations with the City Council. In the meantime, de Blasio is dancing around the question of whether his city really needs all those new bodies on its police force.

"I think we've been over this now for a year and a quarter—we make budget announcements the day we make the budget announcement," he told one reporter at Gracie Mansion two weeks ago. "We don't just give you hints."

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