Every month, like clockwork, the mayor and the police department host a press conference to talk about crime statistics in the city. For years, news has been good as crime has continually dipped to historic lows. Last month, amid a reported NYPD work slowdown spearheaded by police unions, overall crime, according to NYPD stats, kept falling — continuing this trend, just as it did during previous slowdowns.
But as union officials have tried to scare New York by warning that a “Pantaleo effect” of newly disengaged officers could plunge the city into chaos, they have inadvertently highlighted a point for police critics like myself: A city that can cut arrests while crime drops can (and should) spend less on cops.
If the world’s largest police force can shrink its policing footprint out of spite, why can’t elected officials do it as a matter of policy?
To some, this is political crazy talk. But for taxpayers who want to know if an NYPD budget north of $5.5 billion is being spent effectively, it’s only common sense.
First, to understand the current slowdown, you have to look back at the last one. After two cops were killed in December of 2014, police reportedly enacted a temporary slowdown into January, leading to fewer misdemeanor busts and tickets. During that span, overall crime and, importantly, crime complaints dropped.
For some, this showed that the policing of low-level offenses, most commonly associated with the “broken windows” policing philosophies popularized in the 1990s, were a sham. Others will argue that the sample size of only a few weeks was too small to infer any conclusions.
But more data exists.
Over an eight-year span, arrests have plummeted across the city, and not because of any stunt. From 2010 to 2018, arrests dropped by about a third — from over 340,000 to about 205,000 annually.
Most of the decrease was in misdemeanor arrests, which were cut nearly in half to 128,194 down from more than quarter million in 2010. And yes, you guessed it: as arrests went down, so did crime, by about a third.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, it may be because another enforcement mechanism — stop and frisk — also reportedly decreased over the years. Beginning in 2013, the last year under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, reported stops went down dramatically as crime also decreased — despite the apocalyptic warnings of pro-police voices, including this very newspaper.
Former police commissioner Bill Bratton once used the term “peace dividend” to suggest that the heavy-handed police approach he helped put in place in the 1990s has now created the conditions for cops to take their foot off of the enforcement pedal. “Peace dividend,” of course, was a slogan coined by U.S. and UK officials to describe the decreased military spending after the Cold War.
The term is useful in that it describes policing in militaristic terms. But there’s a disconnect, because there’s no decreased spending. The NYPD budget has more than doubled since 1995.
Instead of policing through slogans and rhetoric, the city should reshape its priorities by cutting the NYPD budget and police headcount, redirecting budget resources to community-based solutions to the roots of crime, like anti-poverty programs, housing and employment services. Do we need to pay cops to arrest fare-beaters and those who pee in public in the name of the “broken windows” theory, or are we smart enough as a city to subsidize public transportation and build more public restrooms?
For violence, look to the people on the ground. Credible messengers, many of whom are formerly incarcerated, have driven down violence in communities of color by talking to, not arresting, their neighbors. During a City Council hearing last week, these workers decried the city’s limited funding for this work, which is only fractions of pennies compared to the police dollars the city spends.
Little known fact: During the Bloomberg era, the police headcount dipped from a peak of about 40,000 cops to roughly 35,000. Crime continued to drop. Stops, arrests and cops don’t make us safer, as the city’s own figures show.
Stops, arrests and cops aren’t the key to safety. Our budget should reflect that reality.
Trujillo is a writer and activist.