As the coronavirus pandemic devastates the economy and tax revenues drop massively across the U.S., cities have begun to prepare for the hard times ahead by proposing slashed budgets and reduced public services at a time when so many of their residents need them more than ever.
But the austerity measures won’t be doled out equally across services. In New York City, where officials are projecting a $7.4 billion drop in tax revenue, the proposed budget for next year is $3.4 billion less than last year, with education and youth services facing some of the deepest cuts — and only very modest cuts slated for the police department. In Los Angeles, the police department is the lone city agency that is not facing serious cuts; it is also slated to receive additional funds for police overtime, even as other city workers are furloughed.
Public-interest advocates have long battled to save funds for public services during yearly budget negotiations, but the current health and economic crisis is making the debate over how cities should spend their reduced funds uniquely urgent and fraught. And with crime at historic lows, a growing number of people — including for the first time, some city council members — are now explicitly demanding that cities save money for much needed services by cutting police budgets.
“[New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio is talking about cutting hundreds of millions out of the schools budget and nothing from police,” said Alex Vitale, who runs the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College.
“Why are we plowing money into policing when what we need is public health?” asked Vitale. “Every dime spent on the NYPD is a dime that we can’t have to actually build stronger and healthier communities.”
Public budgets have always been a reflection of the priorities of those in power, and in the United States that priority for decades has been what leaders have called “public safety,” which in reality has translated into mass criminalization. The U.S. spends some $100 billion annually on policing — most of it coming from local budgets — and an additional $80 billion on incarceration, according to a detailed 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy. In cities across the country, policing alone can take up anything between a third and 60 percent of the entire annual budget.
“As a country, we are continuously increasing the amount of spending that we do on policing and criminalization, and that naturally comes with tradeoffs,” said Kumar Rao, director of the Justice Transformation Program at CPD and an author of the report. “We live in a society that has limited public resources, and decisions on where to spend that kind of money mean that we can’t spend it on things that communities really need and deserve.”
Investing in police at the cost of public goods like health infrastructure, education, and social support has a disproportionate impact on poor and black and Latino communities in particular — the same communities that are also most impacted by over-policing and by Covid-19.
“There’s a traditional trope or myth that we don’t invest in low-income communities and particularly communities of color across the country,” said Rao. “But in fact, we do. We spend a lot of money in those communities, but it’s almost entirely on criminalization.”
From New York to Los Angeles, critics of the budgets have in the past been careful to suggest that their cities save money by cutting directly from their police departments.
“The LAPD budget is seen as untouchable,” said Jane Nguyen, an organizer with a coalition of city groups that are challenging the city’s proposed 2021 budget. “No one questions it, city council members don’t have the courage to push back against it, and so every year, the mayor proposes giving half the budget to LAPD and council members just rubber-stamp it.”
“Our kids are not untouchable, our seniors are not untouchable, health care during the pandemic is not untouchable, as you have seen cuts from the state, but the NYPD is untouchable,” echoed Jason Wu, a trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys who has strongly condemned the proposed budget in New York. “I think we are finally at a breaking point where people are having a more nuanced understanding of what the issues are, so it’s not just, do we care about public safety or don’t we care about public safety, but what does public safety even mean?”
New Yorkers on the receiving end of abusive policing have long known that putting more police on the streets doesn’t translate into greater public safety. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought even that reality into clearer focus as police have turned to aggressive social distancing enforcement that defied all common sense and public health recommendations and was discriminatorily carried out against poor New Yorkers of color.
After a mounting backlash over a series of violent social distancing arrests, city officials announced this month that the NYPD would pull back from making arrests or handing out tickets for perceived failures to respect social distance guidelines. But the fact that police were tasked with enforcing the measures in the first place was a reminder of just how over-reliant on police the city has become, said critics, who also blasted city officials over a budget that they say reveals “distorted priorities” and “short-term, narrow vision.”
The mayor’s proposal is currently under review by the city council, and a final budget is expected in June. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the NYPD declined to comment, referring instead to police commissioner Dermot Shea’s testimony during a budget hearing last week. At the hearing, Shea mostly defended the department from criticism of its social distancing enforcement. But he also pushed back against calls to divert funding from police. “Do we want to give more for kids? Absolutely,” he said. “Where does the money come from? That’s a tough question.”
For critics of the department, there’s little question about where money for services should come from. “Police has become the city’s answer to all of the problems that we see in our city,” said Wu. “So to address homelessness, we have seen the city sending police to basically tell homeless people to disappear by ‘sweeping’ the subways.”
“They’re not actually providing homeless people with temporary shelter, let alone permanent, safe, stable housing,” he added. “The pandemic has brought into clear focus just how desperately underinvested things like housing have been in New York City.”
But as revealing as the crisis might have been, it’s not clear that city officials have learned many lessons from it, at least as far as the proposed budget for next year goes.
The current proposal cuts some $6 billion from a preliminary budget the city released in January, and it identifies nearly $2 billion in cuts. But those cuts hit different city agencies unequally, for instance, reducing the education budget by $641.8 million while reducing the NYPD’s by just $23.8 million. As Gothamist noted in an analysis of the proposal, the education budget is about five times the size of the police one, but education cuts are 27 times as large as police cuts. Overall, the proposal allocates some $5.6 billion to the NYPD and $1.2 billion for the city’s corrections department, in addition to a plan the city had already approved for an $8 billion borough-based jails expansion.
The proposed budget also includes $116 million in cuts to the Summer Youth Employment Program, a lifeline for 75,000 city youth and about 20 percent of the budget of Department of Youth and Community Development’s overall budget, according to an analysis by Girls for Gender Equity. The department of youth by itself accounts for 12 percent of the city’s proposed cuts even though it only makes up 0.7 percent of the city’s overall budget. By comparison, the NYPD accounts for only 1 percent of the planned cuts even as it accounts for 6 percent of the overall city budget. The NYPD spends some $40 million a year on overtime alone for school-based police, the group also noted.
“If you are cutting all the other services, cut the police.”
Critics say these cuts are only going to exacerbate existing problems, from homelessness to mental health issues, that the police will then be called in to handle even though they are not equipped to do so. They warn that while plummeting revenues might make some cuts inevitable, the budget proposed by the city will only aggravate an already spiraling cycle of underinvestment and criminalization.
“If you are going to do it, do it evenly,” said Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, referring to the cuts on a recent call with families of New Yorkers killed by police. “If you are cutting all the other services, cut the police. In this pandemic, there is no reason for officers to be there terrorizing and brutalizing us.”
Carr also pointed to the millions of dollars city taxpayers shell out every year to settle lawsuits against police misconduct — some $69 million last year alone, nearly $30 million more than what the city paid out a year earlier. Those lawsuits cost the city some $230 million in 2018 and $335.5 million in 2017. “It’s a shame that we have to pay police to kill our children,” said Carr. “We don’t need more police officers, we need money for other services, for the community, for the youth, for the hospitals.”
In a series of virtual town halls and at public hearings before two different city council committees this week, police accountability advocates and community members called for a redirection of city resources toward underfunded agencies that they argue will be most essential to New York’s recovery. They called for a budget that includes a hiring freeze for the police department, the cancellation of the new cadet class, and the defunding of police initiatives targeting “social service” areas like homelessness, school safety, and youth initiatives. And in a letter sent last month to the mayor and city council speaker, dozens of groups, including some of the city’s largest civil rights and public defender services, called on the city to make “significant reductions to the NYPD’s bloated budget, and to push for greater transparency in how the NYPD spends its vast resources.”
“New York City is currently spending more on policing than on health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined. That’s wrong and unacceptable,” the coalition of groups wrote. “Social services were stretched thin before this pandemic. After this pandemic, we should be prepared for an even larger portion of NYC residents who will rely on social services and public infrastructure to survive and we need a budget that reflects this.”
But in a sign both of how deep the need for services in the current crisis and of how far the debate around policing has evolved, advocates aren’t the only ones calling for cuts to police this year. Some elected officials, who have long been hesitant to publicly target the police department when calling for a more equitable distribution of funds, are now warning that they won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t reduce funding for police. And some council members, including Donovan Richards, head of the council’s Public Safety Committee, have called for $30 million in savings on police overtime and $25 million more by cutting the next class of police academy cadets.
“It’s a painful budget. I mean, let’s be clear, we have $7 billion less than we did before, so we have to make some hard decisions,” said Council Member Brad Lander, who also called for police cuts. “But I know this for sure: If there is not enough money in the budget to hire new teachers, and social workers, and mental health counselors, then there sure is not enough money in the budget to hire 2,300 new police officers. That is hundreds of millions of dollars that instead of using on policing, you must use on mental health, on youth, on education.”
“If there is not enough money in the budget to hire new teachers, and social workers, and mental health counselors, then there sure is not enough money in the budget to hire 2,300 new police officers.”
“I will not pass the budget unless we have significant cuts from the NYPD,” echoed Council Member Carlos Menchaca. “That line in the sand has to be drawn now.”
Such statements from elected officials and major organizations are “very unusual,” noted Vitale, of the Policing and Social Justice Project. “It’s part of a broader criminal justice shift, which is that more and more groups that had been in the police reform space and were focused on things like accountability have pivoted to this reinvestment model that says, actually, what we need to do is just take resources away from the police.”
The Policing and Social Justice Project’s proposed cuts for the NYPD include a $200 million reduction for the 2021 budget and for the following four years for a total $1 billion in cuts by 2025. The proposal calls for a cancellation of incoming NYPD officers classes so that police personnel costs can be reduced through attrition rather than layoffs. And it calls for a reduction in overtime and $34 million cuts to new technology expenditures. But those cuts have to be taken in the context of a police department whose spending has grown exponentially in recent years, said Vitale. Under de Blasio’s administration, the police budget has grown from $4.6 billion in 2014 to $5.6 billion in 2019, and police overtime costs have ballooned by $100 million a year despite plunging crime.
“So even a $1 billion reduction only gets us back to 2014 levels.”
In Los Angeles, too, the mayor’s proposed budget slashes services and furloughs 16,000 city employees. The $10.5 billion plan includes significant cuts to every city agency but one: the Los Angeles Police Department, which already takes up more than half the city’s discretionary budget. Instead, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed $47 million in additional funds for LAPD overtime — at a time when 55 percent of city residents are unemployed. Overall, the proposed budget would cut city investment in housing by 9.4 percent and from job programs by 8.9 percent — all while boosting expenditure on police by 7.1 percent. That’s despite a raging housing crisis, and a police department that’s been plagued by scandal after scandal.
“Everyone understands the injustice of this budget,” Melina Abdullah, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles told The Intercept.
Los Angeles advocacy groups have long rallied against budget proposals that regularly allocate half the city’s general funds to police. But the economic devastation brought by the pandemic has put those numbers in perspective for city residents with new urgency, she added.
“Everyone understands the injustice of this budget.”
The group — which joined a number of others to call for a “people’s budget” for Los Angeles — was particularly infuriated at the mayor’s attempt to fast-track approval of the city’s budget by pushing for a full city council vote on Thursday, before lawmakers could properly debate the proposal. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“They completely bypassed the process,” said Abdullah. “They think nobody’s paying attention.” At the last minute, local activists were able to raise enough awareness around the budget to force the city council to open up the remote proceedings for public comment. Nearly everyone who called in expressed opposition to the budget.
“I look at this budget and my stomach turns,” said a man who called into the hearing on Thursday. “We need housing right now, we need people off the streets… It’s morally unconscionable what’s happening right now.”
“LA somehow has this reputation as progressive,” said another caller. “Absolutely nothing about this is progressive.”
By the end of the hearing, the city council delayed a vote on the budget, which means it will go into effect as-is on July 1. Though council members insisted the budget might still be amended, it was a reminder of how little transparency surrounds budget decisions in general, and particularly at a time when those who are most impacted by cuts are also most isolated.
“Frankly that’s how a lot of this stuff happens as a matter of course,” said Rao, citing police budgets, in particular, for their lack of transparency. “In a lot of places, you can see top-line numbers or very high-level departmental spending, but not much beyond that. So as important as shrinking police, a concurrent effort is for transparency around these budgets.”