It has been a little over a year since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, a tragedy that sparked a national movement to reimagine the American criminal justice system.
Since then, police incidents nationwide have pushed protesters to ramp up calls to “defund the police.” It’s fair to say that the first real test for criminal justice reform is in the Democratic primary race for New York City mayor on Tuesday. Many observers maintain that the winner of the crowded primary is the de facto winner of the November election.
The city needs a mayoral candidate who can show the country that it is indeed possible to overhaul the police and keep the public safe. Defunding the police and public safety are not binary choices.
All too frequently, as goes New York so goes the rest of the nation. When the focus turns to policing and the criminal justice system, the axiom couldn’t be truer: The city’s communities of color have been over-supervised, over-policed and harassed into incarceration; the shackling effects of such policies as the militarization of police, “stop and frisk” and cash bail are also reflected across the country.
When it comes to delivering justice, the winning candidate must be on the right side of history. The federal government hasn’t made criminal justice reform its top priority, so changes must come at the state and local level. New York City can set the tone.
Unfortunately, some of the race’s top contenders are positioned as opponents to change, arguing that police should have free rein to keep crime under control.
Entrepreneur-turned-candidate Andrew Yang said, “The truth is that New York City cannot afford to defund the police.”
The New York Police Department is hardly on a pauper’s budget. The $11 billion annual funding is the highest in the nation, bigger than many countries’ military budgets. That budget couldn’t prevent a shooting in Times Square, one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods in the world. Is there any other institution that gets more money for doing a terrible job?
Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president and a former police officer, has sounded much more like the heavy-handed Rudy Giuliani when he recently advocated for the much-maligned former stop-and-frisk practice, saying, oxymoronically, it can be a “great tool” when used correctly.
Enter Dianne Morales. She stands in stark contrast to her Democratic colleagues who sound like the law-and-order candidates of old. She has called for redistributing a portion of the $11 billion police budget to community-service projects. Her view on the matter is personal: “My 22-year-old son has been subjected to racial profiling and abusive police behavior,” she told me in a recent conversation. “He was even pepper-sprayed by the police while protesting police violence and marching to protect his civil rights last summer.”