With Crime At Record Lows, Should NYC Have Fewer Cops?
In 1990, 2,245 people were murdered in New York City. In 2018, that number was 295.
Over those 28 years, overall crime has declined dramatically. Arrests for low-level offenses have plummeted, and the city contends that it’s on track to drastically shrink its jail population in order to close the facilities on Rikers Island.
Today, the NYPD has about 36,000 uniformed officers—down from a peak of 40,285 in the year 2000, but nearly 11,000 more than three decades ago—and a budget of a little less than $6 billion, the vast majority of which is spent on payroll.
The growth of that budget has outpaced that of the Fire Department, Sanitation Department, and the city’s budget overall. An analysis conducted for Gothamist by the Citizens Budget Commission found that since 1980, and adjusted for inflation, the NYPD’s budget has grown an average of 2.1 percent per year. While the city’s budget has grown an average of 1.7 percent.
Advocates say that this era of falling crime and decarceration calls for a major reassessment.
“By all metrics we should be reducing the headcount,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform. “That money is better invested in fixing our crumbling public infrastructure and making sure housing is affordable to all New Yorkers, and other neighborhood-based infrastructure is shorn-up.”
Asked about reducing the size of the NYPD to fund other initiatives, Mayor Bill de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that New York has the “right number [of police officers] for all the things we’re asking officers to do now, which is much more about day-to-day quality of life… than dealing with the tragedy of what we used to have in the early ‘90s.”
“I understand the impulse of some folks that say, ‘Oh you know, let’s move money into all these other things,’” de Blasio said. “But there is an argument in life that, you know, if you’ve made a lot of progress, don’t let that progress slip away.”
New York City advocates launched a #NoNewNYPD campaign in 2015, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced funding for 1,300 new uniformed police officers to implement his “community policing” initiative, which the City Council passed in a controversial vote.
In response to the mayor’s $8 billion plan to close Rikers Island and open four new jails by 2026, the #NoNewJails prison abolition movement demanded “an immediate divestment from the New York City Police Department, beginning with all city dollars allocated for the purpose of policing the homeless and those struggling with substance use disorder or mental illness.”
And as cops are seen on video making violent arrests on subway platforms, some New Yorkers have rejected Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call to hire 500 new MTA police officers to patrol the subway system while the agency is facing a $1 billion deficit.
On Friday, protesters took to the streets of Downtown Brooklyn and jumped turnstiles en masse. “I can tell you, there’s going to be more actions and it’s going to be on a massive scale,” said Amin Husain, a core organizer with the coalition Decolonize This Place. “It’s around abolition, that you abolish the fucking police.”
Husain said that the protesters are calling for a “mechanism of divest and reinvest.”
“Why am I paying so much for the MTA and you’re criminalizing black and brown people?” he asked.
When the city has hired new police officers, the move has usually been justified by rising crime, or new initiatives like community policing, while reductions in the NYPD’s headcount have historically been triggered by fiscal reasons.
“When [David] Dinkins was mayor, and the police department had not been restored to what it had been before the fiscal crisis in the ‘70s, there was a decision that we had to hire more police officers,” says Bernie O’Brien, a senior budget analyst with the NYC Independent Budget Office.
The administration added more than 2,000 new officers for a total of roughly 28,000 by 1993, according to headcount data compiled by the Independent Budget Office.
Then came President Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which brought an influx of funding to police departments across the country. (Today, budget analysts told Gothamist, the vast majority of NYPD funding comes from the city.) This coincided with Rudy Giuliani’s tough-on-crime, Broken Windows policing administration. The uniformed police force swelled to record highs, and crime in New York City continued to fall, corresponding with a nationwide decrease.
“The police department was built up even more to the point that in the year 2000 there were 40,000 police officers,” O’Brien said. (Note: Public housing and transit police merged with the NYPD in the mid-1990s. For consistency, we’ve included them in our overall uniformed officer count prior to the merger.)
The force then dipped back down to roughly 35,000 during the recession under Bloomberg then back up to north of 36,000 under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“The principle now is that… if you go under 35,000 it’s a problem,” said Themis Chronopoulos, director of American Studies at Swansea University in the United Kingdom, and the author of Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance.
In his research, Chronopoulos has argued that a central justification for investing in the NYPD—that New York must be “orderly” in order for it to be safe, and therefore economically successful—is not based on hard evidence. “The two have probably got little to do with each other but it’s marketed as such,” Chronopoulos said.
“As long as the New York economy is doing well… I don’t think much is going to change,” Chronopoulos predicted.
The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, asserts that reducing the size of the police force could lead to an increase in crime. “We should certainly be encouraged by how our crime numbers compare to the bad old days,” said Rafael Mangual, deputy director of legal policy for the institute. “But I don’t think we ought to start tinkering with the capacity of the institution most responsible for getting us there.”
Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University who specializes in police accountability and criminal law, said that the connection between the size of the police force and crime patterns is not so cut and dry.
“What portion of fluctuation in crime rates is attributable to policing, and what portion is attributable to other factors?” Fagan said. “Like the decline of drug epidemics, demography, economic well being, changing in housing patterns, and so on. I think the answer to whether or not we’re justified in [shrinking the force in] an era of declining crime rates depends in part on just what portion of our public safety is attributable to things police do. It’s not 100 percent.”
In a recent New York Times op-ed, attorneys Derecka Purnell and Marbre Stahly-Butts write that “the police do not help vulnerable populations — they make populations vulnerable.” They cite a 2005 federal Government Accountability Office report that found the police played a miniscule role in reducing crime in the ‘90s.
“Ultimately, the orderly city is based on the idea of racial profiling practiced by a police force seeking to dominate public spaces by regulating the activities of ordinary people of color,” Chronopoulos wrote in one 2017 research paper. Racial disparities have long persisted in who the NYPD chooses to stop or arrest—81 percent of people stopped by the police from 2014 to 2017 were black or Latino; 89 percent of those arrested for fare evasion during the first six months of 2019 were either Asian, black, or Hispanic.
Fagan added that one way to learn more about policing’s effect on crime would be to study the NYPD’s actual deployment by command-type and geographic area—how many officers are stationed where, and what they do (narcotics, gang squad, precinct patrol, and so on). While the NYPD releases some deployment data, the most precise information is closely guarded.
“If there is going to be transparency and accountability, then those numbers should be made open, and researchers could actually look at the relationship between crime rates and police and patrol strength. The number of officers who are actually involved in different types of enforcement,” Fagan said.
The NYPD did not answer questions about its deployment patterns.
“New York City’s public safety gains are not guaranteed,” NYPD spokesperson and former New York Times police beat reporter Al Baker said in a written statement. “Our patrol force continues to work together with our detectives and specialized units to focus on criminals with precision while using enforcement more intelligently and tailoring officer deployments to crime hotspots.”
Empirical justifications aside, Fagan stressed that politics frequently prevails.
“Historically the relationship between the political entities, whoever is in Gracie Mansion, and in the [police] unions, is one of care and caution,” Fagan said. “And to give [the police] credit for whatever happens with the crime rates.”
Fagan added, “Every trade union wants to protect the jobs of its members, and they’re no different. The fact that they’re responsible for the liberty interests of people on the street makes it different than arguing for more plumbers or electricians.”
Brandon West, outgoing president of New Kings Democrats, agrees. He worked for three years in the Office of Management and Budget in the Sanitation division, and then for the City Council as a finance analyst during Melissa Mark-Viverito’s speakership. He’s now running for City Council in Brooklyn.
“There’s a degree to which the NYPD is so well-organized and capable of advocating for its needs, it’s literally impossible to hold them in check,” West said. “And that’s just a reality that no one is really pushing back on.”
“There’s no answer that involves not decreasing their presence in the city. And I think people are figuring that out,” West said. “But it’s going to take a while to get enough people on the council to follow through on that.”