It took only a handful of days for New York lawmakers to pass a set of police reform bills earlier this month. They are bills that had already been sitting on the shelf, at least two of them for four years. The City Council also just passed its own accountability measures, and lawmakers are now considering a significant cut to the NYPD’s budget—cuts that advocates pushed well before the killing of George Floyd.
While the massive protests seemed to have jolted lawmakers to attention, it was longtime activists who were poised to present concrete plans -- immediately.
“It was, like, in a basket that folks could just hand over to the legislature and say, ‘You want to make some change or you want to respond to this moment and make sure tragedies like George Floyd never happen again in our state? Here, take these things that we've...vetted for a long time and thought about for a long time and pass these things,’” said Candis Tolliver, political director for 32BJ SEIU.
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More than eight years ago, when Tolliver did police reform work for the New York Civil Liberties Union, she was one of several people from different organizations working to form Communities United for Police Reform. It’s a broad coalition of member groups, including larger institutions like the New York Civil Liberties Union, and grassroots organizations embedded in neighborhoods with a history of tensions with police.
Tolliver recalls conversations among coalition members years ago that led to many of the changes taking root in this moment.
“In a perfect world, what would policing look like? These were the questions that we asked ourselves early on,” she said.
They took on the big picture—such as how to foster public safety without over-policing—along with more specific changes related to police accountability. Those discussions led to the Community Safety Act, passed by the city council in 2013, which provides more NYPD oversight and protections against discriminatory policing.
The group also laid out a framework for repealing state law 50-a that kept police disciplinary records unavailable to the public; for getting a special prosecutor in instances where police kill individuals; and requiring police departments to produce more data on police killings and low-level police encounters, like traffic stops. State lawmakers just passed all of these bills this month.
To activists seeking to change the NYPD, these bills are not even close to the end game, and mainly provide more transparency in their fight for reform.
“It's a victory in a sense to where now we can actually fight these cases with real information,” said Victor Dempsey, who became a police reform activist nearly four years ago, after an off-duty NYPD officer shot and killed his brother, Delrawn Small.
The officer, Wayne Isaacs, was charged by a special prosecutor in the case, but acquitted. Dempsey says the NYPD has never disciplined Isaacs for the fatal shooting, even though his brother was unarmed. Isaacs also failed to report in a 911 call he made after the incident that he had shot someone.
Dempsey is a community organizer for the Legal Aid Society and an active member of the group Families United For Justice, for people who have relatives who have been killed by police. He says he has been heartened by the number of people protesting in the streets, but the feeling can be bittersweet knowing that not all families get the same outpouring of support after a police killing.
“It does hurt sometimes when I go to these rallies and protests, and I'm seeing these boards full of names in New York City, and my brother's not on there,” Dempsey said.
Besides fighting for accountability in his brother’s case, Dempsey and other advocates are putting their energy into pushing for cuts to the NYPD’s budget. Communities United for Police Reform is seeking at least $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD for the next fiscal year alone, and more in subsequent years. They want the money shifted to other programs for youth, communities of color and low-income people.
“It’s well past time for us to stop acting as if police are the only part of safety,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, the director of Communities United for Police Reform.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the coalition reiterated its call for funding more social services and for helping communities recover from the public health crisis.
Kang also noted that shrinking the police budget is about shrinking the police footprint on the streets.
“We’re trying to reduce the unnecessary interactions between community members and police,” she said.
It seems like city leaders are listening now, said Gina Arias, an activist with the organization Justice Committee, part of the coalition Communities United for Police Reform. Arias has been volunteering with the group—marching in the streets, taking part in campaigns—for 22 years.
“Now we have the kinder, gentler politicians,” Arias said. “But, you know, don't get it twisted. They have blocked a lot of this work for a long time.”
So people have to keep putting pressure on those politicians, she said.
“Sometimes it has felt like you're just pushing a rock up the hill and it just falls back down,” Arias said of working to change police practices. “And, you know, you just keep on pushing it.”