Video footage of a number of episodes in which police shot and killed unarmed men were widely circulated last week. The images, which emerged as Derek Chauvin‘s trial for killing George Floyd is wrapping up in Minneapolis, had many, including politicians, renewing the call to Defund the Police, or even abolish the police. Others are promoting significant reduction to public safety budgets and reallocating those funds to social services.
As a New York City Council member representing a couple of South Brooklyn neighborhoods in late 80’s and early 90’s, I lived through a version of defunding the police. It wasn’t by choice; due to severe budget restraints by a City facing fiscal problems, the hiring of officers was significantly curtailed. The results were not pretty.
In 1975, the New York City Police Department was staffed with 36,000 officers. By 1990, it was down to about 30,000. While that number seems sizable, it’s inadequate to police a metropolis the size and complexity of New York City.
In 1990, the City recorded a staggering 2,245 homicides. Officers in radio cars had a backlog of calls as they responded to one job after another. Residents were complaining that officers were not arriving at crime scenes quickly enough. Quality of life conditions were not being addressed and community policing was out the window. Some precincts didn’t have enough personnel to staff radio cars on midnight to 8 am shifts.
I exposed how bad it was as a member of the Public Safety Committee. I was monitoring staffing levels and learned that there were severe shortages of radio cars patrolling, especially on midnight shifts. I reached out to legendary TV reporter Bob O’Brien and informed him about the problem. We decided to meet up at about 2 am one night and, cameras rolling, to visit three South Brooklyn precincts to inquire how many cars were on patrol. The results were just brutal: One house had no cars on patrol, another had one, and a third had to borrow staff from another precinct.
At about the same time, a tourist from Utah named Brian Watkins was brutally stabbed in front of his family on a subway platform. The shortage of officers along with the crime wave and high profile murder of Watkins reached a tipping point for the public: Something had to be done to address the violence. The cover of the Daily News screamed, “Dave Do Something,” referring to Mayor David Dinkins.
The Mayor to his credit convened with the Council Speaker at the time, Peter Vallone, and crafted a plan to dramatically increase the hiring of officers.
It was a smart proposal called “Safe Streets, Safe City,” and it bolstered the police force to roughly 38,000 officers. New Yorkers who normally bellyache about increased taxes wholeheartedly endorsed an income tax surcharge to pay for it. They supported the tax because they knew that the money was mandated primarily to hire badly needed officers. But not all of it went to officers; some of the funds from the program funded Beacon Schools to offer sports, tutoring and crafts to young people.
This well thought out initiative contributed to the beginning of the significant crime reduction in the City. By the end of Dinkins’ term, homicide had been reduced by 13 percent. Rudy Giuliani, who defeated Mayor Dinkins, inherited a fully staffed patrol force.
You can find evidence beyond my experience for how foolish this defund movement is by looking at the impact it has had on cities that reduced the budgets of their police agencies. They include Minneapolis, Oakland and Los Angeles. The reversal came swiftly; all those urban centers have now decided they need to hire more officers as violent crime has spiked. Portland, Minneapolis and Seattle, where “activists” have declared areas of those cities “autonomous” or police free zones, have watched them devolve into bloodbaths.
Unfortunately, along with defunding the police has come the active demonization of officers, making the profession more difficult and dangerous. It has contributed to more attacks against officers and more suspects resisting arrest. As a result, attrition is at a record high and a record number of police chiefs are resigning. With all the bad press, fewer people seem interested in this noble profession. Departments are having a hard time recruiting candidates. Minneapolis is currently spending $10 million to attract candidates and offering financial incentives to officers from other agencies to supplement their department as they attempt to hire.
If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. The direction that New York City’s leadership is heading is not a good one. Along with contributing to the demonization of police officers, they have embraced the defund narrative calling for even more budget cuts.
This to a department seeing record levels of attrition. We are already experiencing the consequences of their misrule as shootings are skyrocketing and murders are on the increase.
We already tried defunding the NYPD. It was a disaster. Let’s not make that mistake again.
Sal Albanese served on the NYC Council from 1982 to 1997.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.
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