It’s that time of year again — New York City’s budget process is underway. Unfortunately, the proposed budget is $3.4 billion less than last year due to the lost tax revenue from COVID-19, as well as cuts in New York’s state budget, leaving a bigger hole for the city to backfill. What will New York City do to balance its expenses?
The city budget, which usually passes in June, is not a done deal yet. The mayor’s budget still needs to be negotiated with the New York City Council, and pre-budget hearings have started. There is still time to make our voices heard and stop the city from robbing Peter to pay Paul. Mayor Bill de Blasio and city council members will likely do what they usually do: underfund and cut housing, health care and education to pay the New York City Police Department (NYPD) billions of dollars. This has to stop.
As a member of Manhattan Community Board 11, which covers East Harlem, I participate in crafting recommendations of our district needs for the city budget. I see how our city sets our collective priorities through the allocation of funding — a budget that props up policing to battle all the symptoms to our city’s problems, but not the root causes.
When people are homeless on the street and need homes, the city’s response is to send the police to “sweep” the streets. When poor people — particularly Black and Latinx people, who can’t afford increasing transportation costs — jump subway turnstiles, the city’s response is to send the police for fare evasion. When people, including children, are trying to earn money by selling candy or churros in the subway, the city’s response is to send the police.
Clearly, the police are being deployed in response to matters that do not require law enforcement or involve “public safety.” It is not only ineffective and cruel; it is also a waste of limited taxpayer dollars.
This year’s budget will be extremely constrained. The COVID-19 pandemic is projected to result in $7.4 billion in lost tax revenue for the city. Mayor de Blasio’s executive budget cuts $641.8 million from education but only cuts $23.8 million from the police department. In other words, the cut from education is about 27 times greater than the proposed cut from the police department.
To get more specific as to who is impacted, New York City’s school population is 40.6 percent Latinx, 25.5 percent Black and 16.2 percent Asian. The mayor also announced cuts to the Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides jobs to 75,000 youth in the city each summer. In 2019, the program employed 44 percent Black, 25 percent Latinx and 12 percent Asian youths. These numbers are particularly alarming when we see these are the same racial demographics targeted by the police and criminal legal system. The city’s Department of Correction reports their average daily population is 53.3 percent Black and 33.9 percent Latinx.
There never seems to be enough money to invest in our youth and their futures when it comes to education and job opportunities — except the money is there. The issue is our priorities. In the mayor’s executive budget, he allocates $5.9 billion for the NYPD and $1.2 billion for the Department of Correction. Moreover, the city approved an $8 billion borough-based jail expansion plan.
The exorbitant financial costs of policing and mass incarceration gets worse. In 2019, the city paid approximately $69 million toward police misconduct lawsuits, and close to $39 million in 2018. This doesn’t even capture the total figures for the costs of all claims against the NYPD. In 2018, the NYPD paid close to $230 million, and $335.5 million in 2017. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer predicted that these numbers may go up based on a “substantial number of pending wrongful conviction claims filed against the City [which] could result in an increase in future NYPD payouts.”
Needless to say, each of these NYPD lawsuits represents lives that were destroyed and communities that were traumatized. It also reveals that the police are part of the problem in perpetuating harm to Black communities — ask the families of Eric Garner or Layleen Polanco. Rather than contributing to public safety, police do the opposite. The money spent on policing that resulted in these lawsuits could’ve been better spent on housing, education and health care.
A case in point was the NYPD officer who escalated a confrontation with a Black bystander for allegedly violating social distancing rules. This officer whips out a taser and starts slapping, punching and arresting the bystander — this same officer was previously named in seven lawsuits, which required the city to pay at least $210,000 in settlements. In one of these lawsuits, he was accused of mocking a lesbian and calling her a “fucking dyke,” and then beating her up before arresting her. In stark contrast, there are now countless viral images of white people gathered in large groups in the park and outside bars, flouting social distancing rules, without any harm from the police.
We are told tradeoffs must be made in the name of public safety. But racist policing does not make any of us safer. The truth is there is no such thing as public safety when Black and Latinx New Yorkers are dying at twice the rates of their white counterparts from COVID-19. The infection and death rates can literally be mapped onto the most segregated neighborhoods in the city by race and class. The reality is poverty and systemic racism are comorbidities, and no amount of policing and mass incarceration will fix the root causes of these problems.
But it’s not too late. As the New York Budget Justice movement has called for, we can increase city, state and federal taxes on the rich and wealthy to fund a budget that invests in our communities and fights inequality. Even during this pandemic, billionaires continue to see their net worth soar by many more billions, and they can afford to pay their fair share instead of continuing to balance the budget on the backs of poor, Black and Brown New Yorkers.
In addition to increasing our government’s tax revenue, we can also choose to redirect much-needed resources from the NYPD budget to the needs of our communities. For decades, organizations like the Alliance for Quality Education have been fighting to fully fund our schools, because without funding there is no educational equity for the next generation. In recent years, one of the most visible campaigns to explicitly center a redistributive budget demand was led by No New Jails NYC, a coalition that unapologetically demanded redistribution of billions of dollars from building new jails in New York City to community-based resources that would support permanent decarceration.
It is time to make a different choice. Join me in demanding our elected officials finally put our communities first, now more than ever: Choose to invest in future generations through housing, health care and education, and reject disinvestment, criminalization and mass incarceration.