Mayor de Blasio was in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood as he rolled out a budget April 26 that brought to mind the remark of an owner of the Washington football team a half-century ago, who said of his dynamic coach, George Allen, "We gave George an unlimited expense account, and he exceeded it."
The Mayor, swimming in $14 billion in total Federal aid to the city largely attributable to Joe Biden's becoming President and Democrats' narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, insisted he was simply making the most of that windfall of one-shots. He contended it would improve life here in all the ways that would accelerate the city's comeback and make it a better place in which to live, visit and build businesses.
But WCBS-TV's Marcia Kramer popped that Monday-morning balloon by asking about the 28 incidents of gun violence over the weekend in which 31 people were wounded, and whether it indicated the plan he'd rolled out the previous week to get shootings under control might not be the answer.
"And because of this," she continued, "police experts are saying you need more cops--and there's no new cops in your budget."
Blames Courts and 'A Perfect Storm'
Mr. de Blasio responded with his standard litany regarding the rise in shootings.
The court system hasn't been fully functioning—something he said was about to change to allow for gun prosecutions "that are going to take a lot of the worst actors out of the equation."
And, he added, "it's been really tough in the middle of a pandemic and a perfect storm."
"Total bull----" was the response offered two mornings later by Dennis Quirk, who's headed the Court Officers Association for more than 40 years, "Shootings are up because they don't put anyone in jail."
He scoffed at the Mayor's claim that the courts have not been operating at normal levels in recent months, saying, "We're open and ready. The solution to crime on the street is to give judges discretion to hold people in jail. Right now there are shooting cases where they're being turned loose while the paperwork's still being done."
Not surprisingly, the Mayor's perfect storm did not include actions taken by his administration that have hampered the NYPD in its efforts to get violent felons off the street, from the disbanding of the Anti-Crime Unit last June after a couple of controversial incidents to the bill he signed a month later subjecting cops to criminal charges if, while trying to arrest someone, they compressed that person's diaphragm in bringing them under control.
And Mr. de Blasio was among those who applauded the state's enactment of the bail-reform law that Mr. Quirk and other critics have argued makes it difficult if not impossible for judges to order the incarceration of some of those accused of gun-related crimes.
Later in the press conference, NY1's Courtney Gross asked what the NYPD's budget for the coming fiscal year looked like under his plan compared to the current one, noting that his former Counsel, Maya Wiley, has made cutting $1 billion from the NYPD a key plank in her mayoral campaign.
The Mayor said his proposal left the department's budget "essentially flat," except for $16 million to be used for community-outreach efforts and to improve the dialogue between the NYPD and local communities. Otherwise, he said, "the number of officers remains static at about 35,000."
Wrong Place for 'Static'?
He had answered an earlier question from Ms. Gross, about spending the entire $14 billion in new Federal aid, in the coming fiscal year rather than putting away more in reserves than the roughly $3 billion he wants, by saying, "if we do everything we're capable of doing, it's also going to attract jobs, businesses, tourism, you name it, starting right now."
Which made it all the more curious that none of his planned extravagance has to do with enhancing the Police Department's law-enforcement capabilities. Because, you name it: business, tourism and one the Mayor didn't mention, mass transit, are all heavily dependent on the perception that the city is safe, both above and below ground.
It's estimated that the pandemic has cost the city $60 billion in lost revenue from tourism over the past year. The great majority of that may be for reasons that have more to do with shutdowns and limitations on entertainment venues and restaurants than concerns about crime. But does anyone imagine a large chunk of that money will come back if the city continues to be perceived as a place where even Midtown Manhattan residents aren't as comfortable as they used to be after dark?
Two days after the Mayor's budget presentation, speaking following an appearance at a United Parcel Service union rally in Queens, the mayoral candidate with as good a sense as any about what makes a city work, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, highlighted some of what ails the city in the perception of safety: "increases in gun violence, increases in anti-Asian attacks."
And, she added, friction between police and some high-crime communities presented one more obstacle when it came to catching perpetrators: "If you don't rebuild trust with communities, you don't get those clearances."
One reason, she said, may be that "there seems to be a disconnect" between the Mayor and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.
Perhaps that's best explained by Mr. de Blasio's reluctance to give the NYPD either the added resources or the moral support it could use in dealing with the gun problem, which is all the more frustrating because arrests in that area are significantly higher than a year ago. It is as if he has decided that is the one place where he won't throw money at the problem, either because it would acknowledge that the cuts he agreed to last June in the NYPD budget had proved counterproductive or he fears criticism from his left as he serves his final eight months in office while looking for a less-stressful job, such as political commentator.
Out of Sync With Public
But if the sketchy polls to this point tell us anything, it's that notwithstanding the city's progressive reputation, its residents aren't convinced that cutting the police force is consistent with that philosophy. The three candidates who have clearly identified themselves as progressive, Ms. Wiley, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales—who has tripled up on her rivals by pledging to cut $3 billion from the NYPD budget—have yet to account for 25 percent of the vote among them in those surveys. That includes the poll in which undecided dropped from 50 percent to 26 percent, meaning of those who had made a decision, two-thirds preferred others in the race.
One explanation is that in the wake of the killing of George Floyd 1,000 miles away and The New York Times covering the protests that followed here as if any violence was largely the fault of the police, rather than the small-but-significant number of unruly and violent people in some marches and the unwillingness of other protesters to disperse when they were supposed to, passions have cooled as the public has seen shootings and homicides remain high.
Another may be that the political candidate who last year best exemplified keeping perspective while trying to find common ground is now our President, and that has made city residents look at what's right vs. what's troubling here with greater moderation. The attacks on the U.S. Capitol by domestic terrorists in service to Donald Trump may also have served as a reminder that the police—even when hamstrung—are our main line of defense against chaos and thuggery.
Mr. de Blasio's travails in office make clear the difficulty of living up to the high ideals a candidate may profess. even while practicing the more-banal political steps of trying to please big contributors and doing business with other people who don't aspire to secular sainthood.
Ms. Wiley had her own image tarnished by her role as his Counsel in trying to fend off attempts by reporters to obtain email correspondence between him and some longtime confidants whose advice he sought while they were representing clients with business before his administration. To ward off the media, she coined the phrase Agents of the City. It wasn't recognized in court as a valid argument against disclosure, but it succeeded in creating a memorable tag that could undercut her claims of purity.
Scorning the Gifted
More recently, she has run afoul of the sort of activists who think that any designation that implies distinction is a mark of bad faith and privilege. Ms. Wiley has taken a position against gifted-and-talented classes, but recently was flogged for having sent one of her children to Mark Twain Junior High, one of the citadels of that program.
This has roused the wrath of the righteous souls—from Department of Education activists to community groups and students precocious enough to know all the answers that matter—who recently wrote the Mayor and Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter demanding an end to the gifted-and-talented program, saying that it helped make the city school system "one of the most-segregated in the country" and questioning the concept of "giftedness."
If they had trained their sights strictly on the gifted-and-talented admissions test given to 4-year-olds, it would have been hard to argue with them. Such a test does not measure aptitude or talent so much as it does the extent to which some kids' parents have prepared them for an education that's supposed to culminate in the Ivy League.
But as was pointed out in one of the stories dealing with Ms. Wiley saying one thing while doing the opposite within her own family, Mark Twain is evenly split between white pupils and those of color. Located in a poor section of Coney Island a mile or so from the amusement area, it was converted to gifted-and-talented in the early 1970s to improve the quality of a middle school whose student body then was overwhelmingly minority.
It succeeded not just because it became palatable to white parents who became willing to send their children to school in a neighborhood they had been wary of, but to Teachers who were suddenly eager to teach there. My mother was one of them: she left a job teaching English at James J. Reynolds Junior High in Sheepshead Bay that was within walking distance of our home to spend more than half her career in the system at Mark Twain, emboldened to step out of a comfortable commute for the challenge and exhilaration of teaching a more-motivated group of students than she often found in her old, less-diverse school.
The oddest aspect of the push against the gifted-and-talented classes is that it puts proponents in the same camp as the billionaire who did what he could to eliminate such programs, particularly in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The man whose idea of how to become the city's Education Mayor was to hire as his first Schools Chancellor an attorney who specialized in litigation, Joel Klein, seemed to decide early in his tenure that if he wanted to better reach students whose struggles in school were greatest, the way to do it was to take what he considered frills out of the process.
In addition to dispensing with such programs wherever it was politically feasible, Mr. Bloomberg phased out music and art classes, as well as phys-ed classes. It was as if, having become wealthy without letting himself be distracted by electives that could both stimulate students' brains and infect them with feeling, he had concluded it was best to feed them a steady diet of meat and potatoes—with teaching to the test the special sauce—rather than what might challenge or delight their palates.
It didn't work nearly as well as he expected, and when he left office at the end of 2013, in some parts of the education community, there was jubilation at the thought of resuming gifted-and-talented classes in parts of the city where they might make the biggest difference in motivating and inspiring students.
Those railing against the programs as elitist take themselves too seriously. Worse, they lack the imagination to grasp that, with Mr. de Blasio's signature achievement, pre-kindergarten classes now offered to 3-year-olds, the playing field should be a lot more level throughout the city than it was eight years ago, meaning that gifted-and-talented classes could play an integral part in lifting up student achievement throughout the city.
To make such changes a reality will require the next Mayor to view not just education but policing and other city services not through an ideological prism but with a willingness to go with what works. That would merely require trust that the larger public would appreciate fresh approaches, regardless of how critics on either side of the spectrum might stay locked into the dogma that rarely is the path to what's truly progressive.
Above photo courtesy of Ed Johnson, via Flickr
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