During an “Ask The Mayor” segment on The Brian Lehrer Show last month, a woman identifying herself as Larra from Van Nest, in the Bronx, called in to ask Mayor Bill de Blasio for more police on her block.
“We’re having some problems with ever-enlarging groups of young men that are speeding their dirt bikes,” Larra said. “They’re doing wheelies, standing up, their girlfriends are on the back. They’re kind of vandalising cars. They’re loitering.”
Larra said that in light of massive protests against racist police violence in New York City and around the globe, she thinks policing should be “smart.” But she still wants the cops to patrol.
“We need to nip this in the bud before the fireworks — which they’re also firing off — burn down somebody’s house,” she added.
For the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who’d been marching and protesting for weeks, that viewpoint — we need more police officers to crack down on minor offenses — is central to what they’re fighting against. But for de Blasio, the call was a kind of vindication.
“I’m hearing from a lot of people around neighborhoods, including many neighborhoods of color, that they’re concerned about the violence problem,” the mayor said. “I represent 8.6 million people. I respect the protest movement greatly, but I’m also listening to the concerns of working people in neighborhoods all over the city that are experiencing the increase in crime. We have got to balance all these pieces.”
“Larra, thank you,” the mayor added. “After many, many years listening to New Yorkers in different roles, you summarized what I think is the majority view in this city right there.”
It’s not clear if that is the majority view. A Siena poll released on June 30th found that 42 percent of New Yorkers statewide said they feel “more secure” when they see a police officer. Among New York City residents, that number is 33 percent. And among Black residents across the state, only 13 percent said they feel safer in the presence of a cop. The poll also showed that 61 percent of Black New Yorkers supported reducing funds to police departments.
(When asked for more details about who de Blasio is “hearing from,” a spokesperson for the mayor pointed to Larra, the above caller, as an example.)
“What does the community want? Is it OK to have people drinking on your street, smoking marijuana on the street, or do you want quality-of-life enforcement?” NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said on Monday.
“We’re gonna reach out to every neighborhood in the city and ask them what they want and not just listen to the loud voices, but to everyone out there. Come and tell us what you need done in your neighborhoods.”
The idea that a silent majority of New Yorkers want a heavy-handed police presence in their neighborhoods was used by city officials to justify hundreds of thousands of unconstitutional police stops under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and again with the continuation of Broken Windows policing under de Blasio.
A similar line of argument was made by Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential run, when she was asked to defend the 1994 crime bill that led to a boom in the prison population and increased funding for police.
Though the NAACP at the time called the bill “a crime against the American people,” Clinton said that it was a response to “great demand, not just from America writ large, but from the Black community, to get tougher on crime.”
Vesla Weaver, a political science and sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, said she sees echoes of Clinton’s response in de Blasio’s statements.
“It’s a very simplistic reading of Black communal political desires and desires for protection, which are far more varied and complex and sit within a historical context where no alternatives have been offered,” Weaver said. “They keep asking for well-being and initiatives to help them thrive. And they keep getting this one thing. And the one thing they’re always given is the boot on their necks.
“So de Blasio saying, ‘the Black community, these communities, they want police! They don’t want defunding!’ is a very simplistic reading of that,” Weaver continued. “What they’re actually calling for is a response to safety deprivation that doesn’t harangue them for minor trifles and get up in their face for things that police would never be present for in wealthier suburban communities.”
From her research based on 800 conversations in highly-policed neighborhoods around the country, Weaver said a common view is that cops who live in a distant suburb aren’t as well equipped as local civilians for keeping that neighborhood safe. (About 42 percent of NYPD officers live outside the five boroughs.)
“The ambitions and aspirations within communities is much more about a turn towards community members,” Weaver said. “It’s, ‘We should be making use of our institutions. Our elders. Not this third party — the police — who don’t understand our struggle and what we go through. Now we have to trust this party that only sees us as this one thing. And comes in with one tool.’”
Save Our Streets, a nonprofit with operations in Brooklyn and the Bronx, is one group that aims to keep neighborhoods safe without major police involvement.
Ife Charles, the director of anti-violence projects and capacity building for SOS, said the organization employs people who have relationships within neighborhoods, and often have backgrounds that involved “bringing harm to that community.”
As an example for how SOS works, Charles mentioned an incident in which a group of young men were gathered for a confrontation in Brower Park.
“The way we approached it was, we knew people on our staff who had familiarity with some of the young people. So instead of going down there with sirens blaring, it was a casual walk into the park. And our staff approached young guys that they knew and started moving them away from each other one-by-one, saying, ‘Hey, I know this is something you want to go at, but not now. Let’s have a conversation.’”
In addition to stopping potentially violent outbreaks, S.O.S. also works to prevent low-level offenses from turning into arrests.
“Every quality of life issue has now become, ‘Let’s call the cops,’ right?” Charles said. “We have substance abusers who hang out on the corner. So someone might say, ‘God, why are all these people out here? They’re doing this, smoking weed or shooting up dope,’ and we’ll go up to folks — not to say you don’t have a right to be here — but just to say, ‘C’mon let’s take a walk.’
“And again, it goes back to: Our folks have relationships,” Charles said. “They’re not somebody that the community doesn’t know. And that’s one of the things about police. Most of our police are not from the community they police. So when they come in, they’re coming to make an arrest. Not too often are they coming to defuse.”
A recent analysis done by the Vera Institute for Justice showed that cities across the country with the most police officers did not necessarily have lower rates of crime. And as the calls to defund the NYPD grow louder, a central question concerns whether groups like SOS can serve as a kind of alternative to policing.
“Can this be scaled up? I think it can be scaled up,” Charles said. “There’s a role for every entity in society — I say there needs to be major non-police dollars invested in communities.”
For this to happen, Charles said that “the culture has to shift, where we as a community do not rely fully on police to resolve issues.”
“And we have to define what safety is, and then think about ways we need to approach safety. Does that mean that you replace police? I would hope that one day we don’t need to have policing. What does policing look like, where it’s not bringing harm to people of color, and mothers are looking at television and watching their children being killed?”
In the final budget passed late last month, the mayor did agree to shift money away from the NYPD — and allocate $10 million for anti-violence initiatives and another $134 million for family and social services. But critics in the City Council dismissed the NYPD cuts as mostly accounting tricks, rather than true changes to how the city enforces safety.
For example, school safety agents are being moved from the NYPD’s payroll over to the Department of Education’s budget, but there were no details given about how the controversial school policing program itself would change.
While student protesters are now calling for the complete removal of cops from schools, the mayor — who had already been leading a push to reform in-school policing — has cited “a violence problem” and “a lot of weapons that have unfortunately been collected in our schools” as reasons to keep officers present.
"He can’t fathom what a world without police in their current mode looks like,” said Vesla Weaver, “because he believes that policing is perfectable.”