After a summer swept by protests for racial justice and demonstrations demanding the New York Police Department be defunded and held accountable for its violent racism, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office released the second part of his reform plan for the NYPD last Friday. While the plan promises to create a city “that never participate[s] in, or tolerate[s] any further inequality or justice,” it only offers abstractions and empty promises. Crucially, the plan lacks the radical steps necessary to promote a true and just vision for public safety.
The reform plan contains a few grand, yet remarkably intangible promises, like “undoing the legacy and harm of racialized policing.” These assurances fail to describe meaningful actions that would accomplish their purported goals. Advocates have put forth actionable policies for months, such as community control, defunding the police and investing in public welfare. Mayor De Blasio’s report includes many proposed “examinations” and “assessments” over tangible efforts, despite the fact that significant research has been devoted to exposing the NYPD’s structural issues, from racism to a lack of accountability for violence.
Among the most pressing concerns for racial justice advocates is accountability for the NYPD’s abuses. The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight agency of the NYPD, has put forth numerous suggestions for accountability and disciplinary action which have been consistently ignored by the police force, which retains the ultimate authority.
In one case, an NYPD officer tackled a gay man to the ground during a pride parade and used a homophobic slur against him. While the CCRB concluded the officer should be either dismissed or suspended, senior police officials rejected the charges entirely. In de Blasio’s reform plan, expansion of the CCRB’s authority will only be “assess[ed]” as a “possibility.” The CCRB lacks concrete power, and its failures demonstrate the need for a more radical and robust system that gives civilians autonomy over the police.
Such a system would involve direct community control over the police, and put public safety in the hands of the public, where it ought to be. As an institution that imposes a violent, armed force onto a community, policing is highly undemocratic. Communities do not have influence over police conduct, despite the fact that it is the communities themselves being put into danger. Public safety should be a democratic matter, not one monopolized by police departments.
The CCRB’s lack of authority is reflective of a larger problem with accountability systems across the country. Civilian review boards and agencies are structured to answer to the city and provide recommendations which can be neglected by the police force. Continuing to promote this failed system with the possibility of change is to forgo all prospects of serious and meaningful transformation.
Community control of the police would give back power to the people in a tangible way. The Community boards would be able to defund, demilitarize and provide transparency in the police department. This shift in power allocation would allow citizens to hold officers accountable for their behavior and the department’s future. This offers a real democratic alternative to the police state that has destroyed so many lives and promoted an environment of fear and punishment over safety and justice.
Fear of the police is pervasive, particularly in Black and other marginalized communities that face the brunt of police violence. Even those who turn to the police for help end up getting hurt themselves. In 2018, police officers were called to help a suicidal man in Minnesota. Instead of keeping him safe, they shot and killed him. Such senseless violence illustrates the necessity of investing in alternatives to policing that operates on safety and collective well-being rather than fear.
Demands to defund and demilitarize the NYPD and police forces around the country have been criticized as idealistic and ultimately dangerous for the community. However, these criticisms fail to recognize that higher police presence does not correlate to a lower crime rate, and militarized police forces provide no material benefits to public safety.
Research does show, however, that increased access to healthcare treatment such as substance abuse rehabilitation centers decreases violent and financially-motivated crimes. Incidents of reported violent crime decreased 5% per capita in Medicaid expansion states compared to states that did not expand Medicaid access, leading to $400 million in savings. Radical action starts with investing in social services, universal housing and healthcare, education, jobs and violence intervention programs while diverting funds away from bloated police budgets. These steps completed under a thoroughly democratic process would address the structures of racism that are inherent to American policing.
De Blasio’s police reform employs the right language in its promises to end racialized policing, but it does not take the concrete action needed in order to accomplish such an ambitious and transformative goal. It is time for the city to create an environment where communities are empowered to protect public safety and provide for their own well-being without the imposition of an undemocratic, violent and racist NYPD.
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Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]