All over the nation, protesters are demanding that police budgets be cut and that the funds saved be invested in community development projects in working class neighborhoods, particularly those which have high concentrations of Black people.
As this movement spreads to NYC, it might be useful to review the history of police expansion and militarization in NYC, its surprising origins and unintended consequences.
Although most people don't know this, the first big expansion of the NYPD after its budget was cut during the Fiscal Crisis of the 70's took place under the Mayoralty of David Dinkins! The demand for this expansion came largely from the city's poorest neighborhoods, which were under siege as a result of crack related violence In neighborhoods where gun battles were taking place all hours of the day and night, making people afraid to go to work, go shopping, or send their children to school. In response to this, community organizations in the Bronx, East New York and other hard pressed areas began calling for more police and more arrests so that people they represented could go about their daily lives safely.( If you don't believe me, read Noel Wolfe's 2015 dissertation "A Community At War: The Bronx and Crack Cocaine") The Dinkins Administration responded to these pressures by expanding the NYPD, and deploying these officers near schools, churches, public transportation stops and business districts in the neighborhoods hardest hit by crack. Dinkins Police Commissioner, Lee Brown, won support for this approach by constant consultation with community groups in the city's Black and LatinX neighborhoods.
However, with the election of Rudy Guiliani, the city's approach to policing took a very different turn. Whereas Dinkins major focus was making the city's poorest neighborhoods safer, Guilani's focus was to reduce violence and disorder in the entire city and make Manhattan a safe place for tourism and investment. To this end, he and his Police Commissioner, William Bratton introduced and approach called "Broken Windows Policing" which deployed the NYPD to arrest people en masse for non violent "quality of life crimes" such as panhandling on the subway, washing windows at busy intersections, turnstile jumping and fare beating, and drinking in public. The city's business leaders hailed this new approach because it dramatically changed the atmosphere in Manhattan's wealthiest business districts, sparking the gradual revival of NYC as a major focus of domestic and foreign investment
In Guiliani's second term, this approach was modified, in disastrous fashiong, by a new Commissioner with a military background, Howard Safir. Dispensing with the last vestiges of Community Policing, Safir deployed centrally controlled units to descend on the city's poorest neighborhoods to take guns and drugs off the street.The aggressive tactics they used led to one of the most shocking murders of an unarmed Black person in US History- the 41 shot execution of a Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo in a Bronx hallway.
Safir was ultimately forced to resign, and Guiliani left after two terms in office, but the new Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, expanded on the approach to policing Guiliani had pioneered. Not only did he keep expanding the NYPD, he introduced a computerized program CompStat, to make sure that every officer was making large numbers of quality of life arrests, and empowered officers to "stop and frisk" any person they thought might be suspicious. The result of this was that every Black man in the city found himself 'under suspicion" In Bloomberg's final year in office, there were more police stops and searches of Black men than there were Black men in New York City.
The Police Strategies of Guiliani and Bloomberg coincided to an economic boom in Manhattan marked by the constructions of tens of thousands of units of luxury housing, a huge increased in tourism, and the creation of a whole new array of upscale business districts in once decaying neighborhoods like SOHO. It
also fostered gentrification, first in Manhattan neighborhoods like the East Village and the Upper West Side, then in outer borough neighborhoods like Park Slope, Fort Greene, Williamsburgh and Astoria and finally in historically Black communities like Harlem and Bedford Stuyvestant
It also led to a simmering rage in the city's Black and LatinX neighborhoods, where daily police harassment became a reality for people going to work, going to school or going out of the house for recreational activity. Communities who had asked for more police during the height of the crack epidemic now saw police as a force to keep them intimidated and confined while New York attracted wealthy residents and investors from all over the world. The message they received from this kind of policing was loud and clear- "you are a danger to the city and we want you to leave."
Even after a term and a half of the DeBlasio Mayoralty, in which stop and frisk was allegedly ended, there is still a high level of resentment of the NYPD. The current crisis has brought those resentments to the surface.
As wealthy residents depart the city because of COVID-19, we may need to revisit now police are deployed, whose interests they serve, and what kind of atmosphere we want in the city's most popular commercial districts and tourist destinations.
A city where wealthy people from all over feel comfortable and poor people feel confined to their communities or pushed out of the city entirely may not longer be a tenable state of affairs.