As Mayor Eric Adams and the city council enter the final weeks of New York City budget negotiations, they should avoid former mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to public safety and recognize the new realities of crime. De Blasio was able to transfer police funding toward other priorities because he inherited a city made safe by 20 years of effective criminal-justice policies. Adams doesn’t have that luxury.
De Blasio’s decision to replace Rikers Island with much smaller facilities led him to embrace programs designed to free criminals from jail. Most of the city’s sizable spending increase on public defenders and community-based criminal-justice programming occurred after de Blasio announced his Close Rikers roadmap in 2017. To reduce the inmate population from its 2017 daily average of 9,500 to his planned replacements’ maximum capacity of 3,300 inmates, de Blasio pushed reforms to curb jail stays and expand alternatives to incarceration. This meant contracts for community-based supervised-release organizations, other alternatives to detention, and reentry services. Similarly, the Department of Probation received funding for restorative-justice services and other supervision programs; these contracts more than doubled from 2013 through 2020.
De Blasio’s budgetary decisions were guided by his belief not only that most criminals could be safely released from jail but also that police could be safely removed from various functions and replaced with ordinary workers. Accordingly, the mayor expanded a one-person role, that of Criminal Justice Coordinator, into the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, with dozens of staffers. MOCJ’s budget grew 67 percent during his first term and 151 percent during his second.
In 2020, de Blasio and the city council planned to slash the NYPD budget by $1 billion. That included canceling its July recruit class; making major overtime reductions; cutting contracts and non-personnel expenses; and shifting monitoring of illegal vending, homeless outreach, and school safety away from the NYPD and onto other agencies. The mayor presented these proposed budget shifts as redistribution to other community services: “We are going to insure summer programming for over 100,000 New York City young people. That is going to be an investment of $115 million. Another $116 million will go towards education, another $134 million will go towards social services and family services in the communities hit hardest by the coronavirus,” de Blasio said. The city planned a half-billion-dollar shift to the New York City Housing Authority and New York City Department of Parks & Recreation youth centers and for broadband expansion. By 2021, amid rising crime, de Blasio was forced to accept implicitly the need to shore up NYPD. He still defunded the agency—but only by less than half the proposed $1 billion, while announcing plans for 2022 that would preserve officer headcount. However, his general policy orientation and his funding increases toward non-police public safety programs remained.
Despite campaign rhetoric to the contrary, Mayor Adams has continued this trend. The city’s 2022 executive budget expanded community-based programming for antiviolence programs and alternatives to incarceration—from the Cure Violence program (involving contracted “credible messengers” to prevent violence) to the Advance Peace Model (nonpolice gun interventions). The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also received increases for mental-health initiatives.
Mayor Adams and the city council need to recognize that they are not living in 2017 New York. Crime rates have improved over the past year, but the city’s index crimes, which rose by more than 15,000 incidents between 2017 and 2021, are still up 46 percent over April 2021. That includes a 91 percent rise in auto theft, a 54 percent jump in grand larceny, and a 45 percent increase in robbery. And since the state’s calamitous criminal-justice reforms have crippled prosecutors, police will be key in reversing these trends.
More encouragingly, in 2022, Mayor Adams, along with Governor Kathy Hochul, invested more in NYPD resources for reducing shootings through Neighborhood Safety Teams, a successor of the disbanded Anti-Crime Units. The NYPD also received $1.5 million city funds toward additional staffing for its Gun Violence Strategic Partnership. The 20 percent drop in shooting incidents as of mid-February 2023 over 2022 suggests that this funding was well targeted.
Similarly, the NYPD’s Subway Safety Plan has enhanced deployments into the transit system. Additional overtime money from Albany enabled the use of more officers. The subway finally saw a drop in transit crime of nearly 20 percent year-to-date, as of mid-February 2023. De Blasio-style alternative programs boast no comparable success.
As city leaders hash out a spending plan, they should invest more in the NYPD, which has seen its share of the overall budget fall in recent decades. New York does not have the luxury of funding unproven programs or investing in decarceration.
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