A push by NYPD critics to force city officials to cut $1 billion from the department's $6-billion budget took an unexpected turn that has led some advocates to accuse Mayor de Blasio of trying to keep policing operations intact and produce the savings by moving non-police personnel into other agencies.
That charge came at the same time that the head of the union representing School Safety Agents lit into what he termed "the loonies" who were trying to move his members from Police Department control to the jurisdiction of the Department of Education despite the major problems that resulted in their leaving DOE 22 years ago.
Traffic Agents Torn
And in one ironic turn that underscored the conflicting agendas, an attorney leading the push to "defund" the NYPD found himself urging the Mayor to keep Traffic Enforcement Agents, a group with which he was involved before their union was placed in trusteeship, from being shifted out of the department and into the Department of Transportation, which oversaw them prior to 1996.
The reason for their reluctance to move, attorney Arthur Schwartz said in a June 18 phone interview, was that "they feel much safer with the NYPD uniform on."
Though they identify with the Black Lives Matter movement and want a chunk of the NYPD budget shifted to fund youth programs, he said, they worried that returning to DOT would cost them respect and subject them to more-frequent assaults by irate motorists.
As one veteran union official put it, referring to the change in uniform color after they were moved from DOT to the NYPD, "They don't want to go from the Blue to the Brown."
Reaction to Rough Treatment
The battle to significantly pare NYPD spending has gained the support of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson—with whom Mr. de Blasio must agree on a budget by July 1and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in the wake of the large protests and the tough tactics used by the department at times to control them, particularly after an 8 p.m. curfew that was in effect for six days was violated by large contingents of demonstrators.
Similar initiatives have been pressed by protesters in other cities as part of the outrage generated by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes, cutting off his air supply. The angry reaction—which has also resulted in attacks on cops here by people throwing bottles and bricks from within the protesting crowds, and the burning of numerous NYPD vehicles—was the accumulation of numerous killings of black people by white officers in states including Georgia and Kentucky, and continuing anger over the slow process by which the NYPD terminated Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo a full five years after his use of a department-banned chokehold was a factor in the death of Eric Garner, who had resisted arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, on a Staten Island street in July 2014.
Mr. de Blasio, who recently had protesters turn their backs when he tried to speak at a memorial service for Mr. Floyd here, just as hundreds of cops did because they held him responsible for the murder of two officers by a crazed career criminal in December 2014 who said he was taking revenge for Mr. Garner's death at those cops' funerals, has tried to be responsive to the anger of people who at one point were a key part of his voting base.
Reforms Haven't Mollified Critics
He has pointed to reforms in the way the Police Department operates to ensure greater transparency and accountability through recently passed state legislation and city actions, and the NYPD June 15 announced it was disbanding the Street Crime Unit, which has long been a source of friction in the minority community.
But the Mayor has appeared to sidestep their demands that specific components of the NYPD, as well as its uniformed headcount, be sharply reduced. Although his Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, applauded a petition drafted by DOE Central Office staff calling for the School Safety Division to be removed from NYPD control on the premise that it would lead to the division being cleansed of racism, Mr. de Blasio opposed the change.
An indication of why came from the reaction by Teamsters Local 237 President Greg Floyd, who represents the School Safety Agents. He called the shift a "disaster" in the making, noting that school-safety responsibilities had been moved to the NYPD from the old Board of Education in 1998 because school officials had made a mess of it, hiring pedophiles and a gang member for school-safety jobs, and that the operation had been professionalized when police officials took over both the screening and the training of the School Safety Agents.
Mr. Floyd, during a June 17 interview on Joe Piscopo's AM-970 radio show, said the demands that jurisdiction be shifted on racial grounds showed the ignorance of those making them.
Built on a Myth
After noting that he was black and a large majority of the agents were African-American or Latina, he said of them, "They don't carry weapons, they don't have batons, they don't have stun guns, they don't have pepper spray. So the notion that they're abusing the children is just a myth that's created by the loonies out there."
He then turned his fire on City Council Members who favor the transfer, saying, "It's a shell game. They're pleasing the people that are demanding that the police be defunded."
One of those groups, the New York Progressive Action Network—which Mr. Schwartz serves as political director, sent a letter to the Mayor the following day saying, "You pledged to end the 'Tale of Two Cities,' but inequality in NYC has gotten worse since your 2014 inauguration."
And, it stated, "as has become so clear of late, your initial efforts to change the Police Department form the Occupying Force it was under Michael Bloomberg have fallen short. The NYPD continues to have a destructive relationship with the City's communities of color."
It accused him of shying from reforming the NYPD due to "Your fear of the hate-filled leadership of the [Police Benevolent Association]," and said he failed to rein in the force used by the NYPD during the protests while "throwing over 1000 people into jail, where conditions during the COVID-19 crisis were unsafe."
Where They Want Cuts
The letter went on to say that Mr. de Blasio had "one last opportunity to come down on the right side of history" by cutting the NYPD's budget, but that "you cannot get away with achieving savings by moving Traffic Agents to DOT, and Crossing Guards to the Education Department and Transit Police back to the MTA. The money has to get moved from the Police Department to housing, from the Police Department to schools, from the Police Department towards Summer Jobs for Youth, and from the Police Department to our City's health services."
But Mr. Schwartz, who signed the letter along with NYPAN's three co-chairs, also provided this newspaper with a petition prepared by activists in Communications Workers of America Local 1182, which represents Traffic Agents under the NYPD's jurisdiction. Noting that they are "largely Men and Women of Color" and stating that they believed in both police reform and "that Black Lives Matter," they objected to what they had heard was the Mayor's plan to move the Traffic Police Division to DOT.
But the complexity of the situation was borne out when they said of the proposed shift, "This is a cynical move by the Mayor which puts the lives of Traffic Agents at risk."
They elaborated on that concern, stating on the petition, "Before 1996 Traffic was under DOT. Agents were assaulted and harassed in the street every day."
It continued, "It is impossible to implement any Traffic Law in NYC without an NYPD Uniform. NYPD Uniform is a shield for Traffic Agents to perform their jobs. Since we became uniformed employees, assaults and harassment [have] declined sharply. Moving Traffic Agents, who are 90% People of Color, to DOT is a cynical abuse of minority employees."
Presents a Paradox
Their argument suggested a curious paradox at work: while NYPD critics view the department's workings as abusive to minority citizens, an overwhelmingly-minority group of employees were saying it was only the respect engendered by the NYPD that had rescued them from long being bullied by persons they ticketed for disobeying city traffic laws.
The NYPD has historically been resistant to the kind of personnel-related budget cuts that would provide the greatest savings. Several studies in the past pointed to potential savings of hundreds of millions of dollars if the department civilianized many of the thousands of desk jobs that are performed by uniformed officers even though most didn't require police-related expertise.
Commissioners brushed off the recommendations, with one contending that the potential civilian replacements lacked the smarts and skills to perform those duties as well. The poster child for those calling for civilianization was the NYPD barrier unit, which set down barricades prior to demonstrations or at other sensitive locations. District Council 37's Local 1549, which represents 911 operators at the NYPD, for decades argued that this kind of manual labor could be done by civilian employees who would be paid far less and receive less-generous pension rights.
In 2005, while seeking a second term, Mayor Bloomberg got the endorsement of DC 37 by pledging that he would take serious steps if re-elected to bring greater civilianization. When he was officially endorsed at the union's headquarters that October, he made a joke about how difficult it had been to convince Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly to go along with this plan.
The Proof Followed
And as if to prove that, once the Mayor easily won a new term, the civilianization plan died a quiet death. One retired DC 37 official who was involved in the discussions said in a phone interview June 18 that while he didn't remember how the change fizzled out, "I don't think much was done at all, other than window dressing."
He added that it wasn't all Mr. Kelly's doing: that in addition to the city's Office of Labor Relations being inclined to help the PBA preserve jobs that were viewed as "a soft landing" for veteran cops, for some reason there were Office of Management and Budget officials who also lobbied against wholesale changes, despite that office's focus on limiting the city's costs.