Why did de Blasio capitulate?

June 25, 2015

The New York City mayor's sudden reversal of his stance on adding police to the NYPD isn't as surprising as it might first appear, explains Julian Guerrero.

DESPITE A torrential downpour, hundreds of protesters from across New York City lined up on the Brooklyn Bridge side of City Hall to protest Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal to hire some 1,300 new cops, exceeding the number of additional police requested by both the police commissioner and the City Council.

On June 22, de Blasio, with the majority of the Democratic Progressive Caucus behind him, announced a deal to add 1,297 more police to the already 35,000-strong ranks of the New York Police Department (NYPD), prompting local politicians and mainstream media to remark on the mayor's "surprise shift."

Given that de Blasio had refused prior requests by Police Commissioner William Bratton to add more cops to the force, most had expected a compromise to add fewer than 1,000 cops to the payroll.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland joined de Blasio in unveiling the deal, which will cost the city $170 million. De Blasio said 300 of the new police would be dedicated to "counter-terrorism" operations.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) talks to Police Commissioner William Bratton
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) talks to Police Commissioner William Bratton

The announcement infuriated activists who quickly mobilized a response. Protesters and groups aligned with the Safety Beyond Policing campaign chanted and spoke out for almost an hour while rain drenched them and their signs, which featured the word "sellout" plastered over the faces of City Council leaders.

While NYPD officers lined the street with zip ties at the ready, protesters marched west and then north toward Union Square with the cops shadowing them the entire time. Chants of "They don't want traffic! We don't want genocide!" and "Show me what a police state looks like" echoed down Broadway Avenue as New Yorkers watched the impromptu march make its way uptown.

With police threatening to arrest people for "disorderly conduct" and "obstruction of traffic," protesters were forced onto the sidewalks, but maintained their contingent as they switched between anti-police and antiracist chants. By the time the march arrived in Union Square, the size of the police contingent had swelled to equal the number of protesters.

For this writer, the march ended there, but a few protesters continued on to Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York's mayor, in order to bring the protests to de Blasio's doorstep.

AS RECENTLY as early June, de Blasio defended his reasons for not including funds to hire additional officers in his city budget. Just weeks later, he was justifying his about-face by pointing to some supposed NYPD "reforms," such as reorganization of aspects of the force, a cap on overtime pay and a new "neighborhood policing" program to be rolled out over the next year.

After he spent the past 18 months rebuffing persistent requests from the City Council for additional police officers, New Yorkers might be inclined to agree that de Blasio's announcement this week marked a "surprise shift."

But a closer look at the policies and platform of the mayor, along with the pressure applied by the city's many pro-police advocates and the growing movement against racist police abuse, de Blasio's announcement looks more like predictable political opportunism rather than a bolt out of the blue.

Having won a landslide election for mayor on a platform of police reform in 2013, de Blasio has attempted to maintain support both from police reformers and powerful pro-police individuals and institutions.

Although crime rates continue their historic downward trend, New York's mainstream media has collaborated with Pat Lynch, president of New York's police union, in stoking unfounded fears about a supposed "crime wave" washing over New York City.

The fear that he wouldn't be able to win a second term if he couldn't find a way to quiet the media echo chamber on this issue undoubtedly played a role in de Blasio's decision to give the NYPD everything it wanted and then some.

Along with de Blasio, Mark-Viverito and Ferreras-Copeland have tried to blunt criticism of spending millions on more cops by pointing to some minor reforms, as well as increased spending on social services in the overall city budget. According to an interview with Ferreras-Copeland, for example, the deal would lead to better relationships and greater communication between 1 Police Plaza, which is the headquarters of the NYPD, and City Hall regarding how to deploy police in various neighborhoods.

Starting July 1, when the new city budget is expected to pass without a fuss, $39 million will be spent to keep public libraries open six days of the week and $17.9 million to phase in a breakfast program in public schools. But these numbers pale in comparison to the $170 million allocated for hiring the new cops.

The misleading argument that a cap on overtime pay will save the city $70 million doesn't take into consideration the long-term cost of pensions and salary increases for the additional 1,300 officers. And some observers think the city will be unable to cap overtime pay.

ANOTHER OF the mayor's major justifications for the additional officers is the implementation of a new "neighborhood policing" program. Although details are sparse and city officials pledge to provide more information in the coming months, the new program will give patrol officers "about one-third of their day away from radio calls to develop closer relationships with residents of their precincts," according to the New York Times.

Combined with a reorganization plan to replace 400 police performing administrative work with civilian workers so the cops can go out on street patrols, de Blasio's plan would end up increasing the overall number of cops on the streets and raise the number of interactions between police and New Yorkers.

Considering that de Blasio campaigned against the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy that dramatically increased contact between police and residents of predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, the prospect of repackaging greater police presence in certain neighborhoods--albeit under the kinder, gentler moniker of "neighborhood policing"--reeks of hypocrisy.

Of course, the prospect of more police on the streets has real-estate developers and other boosters of gentrification celebrating.

From their glass-walled corner offices, more police equals lower crime rates equals higher property values--and many members of the Democratic Progressive Caucus, such as Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Jimmy Van Bramer, follow this logic in full lockstep. These politicians work closely with the property-owner-driven Business Improvement District plans and have been regularly rehearsing their calls for more police.

Ferreras-Copeland, who represents the Jackson Heights and Corona neighborhoods, which had the highest rate of stop-and-frisks leading to deportations of immigrants in New York City, has herself repeatedly called for Bratton to create a Roosevelt Avenue Police Task Force that would bring together federal and state agencies for the purpose of "reducing crime."

Such initiatives by council members should alarm housing rights activists and anti-gentrification organizers by squarely posing the question of what community control means when elected officials support gentrification plans and calls for more police.

The arrest of more than 140 activists demonstrating in New York City in solidarity with the Baltimore Rebellion provided many Black Lives Matter activists in New York with firsthand experience of the limits of de Blasio's commitment to reform the out-of-control NYPD.

FOLLOWING THE public scuffle between de Blasio and the police union in December of last year, New York City's political establishment collectively shifted to the right in a bid to appease pro-police forces.

The city budget deal is further illustration of the local political establishment's capitulation to pro-police forces and its ongoing close relationship with wealthy real-estate developers who continue to shape the city to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. It will also likely embolden police to more aggressively deal with protesters who challenge the argument that "more police equals more safety."

At the June 23 rally and march against the 1,300 new cops, protesters pledged to make de Blasio a one-term mayor for lavishing money on the NYPD while shortchanging spending on social services badly needed by the city's working class and poor. But this poses several challenges for New York's still small but widely popular movement for police reform--including questions of strategy (similar to the Safety Beyond Policing campaign, but on a longer scale) and of how to achieve political power and community control.

Without any real alternatives to the political establishment's dedication to a status quo that serves the interests of the 1 Percent and given the powerful influence of pro-police forces in shaping the political narrative, organizations and activists seeking to fight against racism, poverty and state-sanctioned police terror have their work cut out for them.

But activists seeking fundamental change shouldn't despair. We need to absorb that we are at the beginning of a years-long effort--and prepare for the long haul by joining and building new and existing grassroots political organizations. Any effective alternative for New Yorkers must be rooted in the various social movements of the city, in poor and working-class communities, and in working-class institutions like New York City's powerful labor unions.

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