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As US cities cut police budgets, the nation's largest force faces financial reckoning

At a time of intense scrutiny of law enforcement since George Floyd's death, a movement to slash police department budgets nationwide is gaining momentum in the midst of police reform efforts and an uptick in violent crime in some major cities.

Posted: Jun 27, 2020 1:07 PM
Updated: Jun 27, 2020 1:10 PM

(CNN) -- At a time of intense scrutiny of law enforcement since George Floyd's death, a movement to slash police department budgets nationwide is gaining momentum in the midst of police reform efforts and an uptick in violent crime in some major cities.

The New York Police Department, the nation's largest police force, faces its financial reckoning this week, with its 2021 budget due before Tuesday.

Around the country, from Los Angeles to Seattle to Minneapolis to Philadelphia, city officials are mulling cuts that scale back the number of officers to shift money toward social services.

Economic woes from coronavirus lockdowns have left city budgets strapped for revenue and decision makers looking for places to trim, even as crime rates spike.

"Conventional budget politics was always about, if you have to make budget cuts, everything should be on the table — but not the police department. Somehow the notion was that if you cut a police budget, you were soft on crime," said New York City's Comptroller, Scott Stringer, who submitted a proposal for reducing the police department budget but is not involved in passing it. "Now, people want a different kind of budgeting and a different kind of governing."

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said nearly 90% of police department budgets go to paying personnel, including salaries and overtime. The rest of the money covers other expenses such as equipment and training.

Drastic budget cuts would affect every facet of policing in America, Haberfeld said.

"With crime increasing you cannot afford to dilute the deployment," she said. "There'll be cuts to overtime. Investigations will suffer. Response times will suffer — everything we ask the police to improve in terms of response time, in terms of clearing investigations and finding people responsible for various crimes."

Alex Vitale, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and author of "The End of Policing," said the calls for change stem from decades of "gross over reliance on policing" in the country.

"This is really a reaction to 40 years of American politicians turning every social problem under the sun, especially in low income and communities of color, over to the police to manage," he told CNN. "And people are demanding that we find better solutions."

There are calls for $1 billion NYPD budget cut
As protesters cried out to "defund the NYPD" while marching through the city's streets, advocates and city leaders considered which parts of the department's nearly $6 billion budget could go.

"The NYPD budget is incredibly opaque. It's the most secretive budget in the entire city," said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy group that proposed a $1 billion cut from NYPD's budget for the 2021 fiscal year.

One of the most draconian measures proposed by the group is a hiring freeze, which would save $263 million in fiscal year 2021, according to the plan. It would also reduce the number of uniformed officers by taking officers out of schools, firing about 220 officers who are on modified duty and accused of misconduct, and removing officers from "non-police" enforcement roles including homeless outreach, mental health response and transportation.

"Cutting at least a billion dollars from the NYPD is the floor not the ceiling of what should be done," Kang said. "NYPD's budget has been allowed to balloon and has been politically protected for years ..."

In a statement, the NYPD cautioned there will be consequences of such a hit to its budget.

"Depleting NYPD personnel by several thousand police officers, at a time of increasing violence, would harm New Yorkers — particularly the communities most in need of public safety. While we support the shifting of some services to other city agencies to achieve the kind of real savings that are necessary now, significant budget cuts threaten to erode our shared successes, our continued reforms and the quality of service New Yorkers expect and deserve."

Stringer, whose office focuses on city spending and how to make it run more efficiently, has a more modest proposal that would still cut $265 million from NYPD's budget each year over the next four years, for a total of nearly $1.1 billion.

The biggest cuts under Stringer's proposal would be to the department's 36,000 uniformed officers. He suggests cutting through an estimated 3% attrition rate. Those cuts, plus other "fringe savings," would save the city $223 million for the year.

"Defund is not just about taking money from one agency to another. Defund is also about investment to fight systemic racism," Stringer said. "A budget is as much a moral document as a financial one. It lays out the aspirations of a city. You put a price tag on those aspirations. I would like money directed at communities that need it the most."

A push is on to fund youth and social services
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told CNN earlier this month he views shifting police funds to help youths as separate from the "defund" movement.

"Look at the fiscal crisis that we're about to be met by -- everyone is going to have to tighten their belts, including the NYPD," Shea said. "I absolutely do commit to taking some money out of the NYPD budget if it can be used to restore programs for kids. I think that's crime fighting. I think it's crime fighting in a different way."

New York City is already struggling financially because of tax revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic.

Crime rates, meanwhile, have spiked.

NYPD statistics show the city's murder rate is up over 18%, over the first five months of the year compared to last year. Overall, shooting incidents are also up over 18% for the year as compared to last year, statistics show.

"It's a combination of things," said NYPD Chief of Department Terrance Monahan in an exclusive interview with CNN. "More people not in jail. Rikers Island (jail) in New York is empty. Between Covid, between bail reform, the protest caused animosity towards the police, which took us out of neighborhoods that needed us the most."

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he supports cutting money from the NYPD budget to shift toward youth and social services and is in closed-door negotiations with the City Council.

"I'm very hopeful that we'll get to a positive outcome with the Council, a major shift of funds from the NYPD to youth services and other community needs," de Blasio said on Friday.

While de Blasio has said he does not support cutting $1 billion from the police budget, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said Thursday the council is pushing the mayor to consider slashing more. He and other council members called for $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD's budget for next year.

"We have been negotiating, we have been pushing, we have been prodding, we have been telling them every single day that the number needs to be a bigger number," Johnson said.

The speaker said he was "incredibly concerned" about increasing crime rates.

"And we want to make sure that we are effectively dealing with those issues, but we don't think that the traditional methods of policing are the only things that work," Johnson said.

Police advocates argue that cutting uniformed officers at a time of spiking crime rates is a recipe for disaster.

Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said, for decades, city agencies that failed at their tasks had those jobs taken away and given to the police.

"If the City Council wants to give responsibilities back to those failing agencies, that's their choice," Lynch said in a June 12 statement. "But they will bear the blame for every new victim, for every New Yorker in need of help who falls through the cracks. They won't be able to throw cops under the bus anymore."

The NYPD said 272 uniformed officers have filed for retirement between May 25 and June 23 — which Lynch attributed to cops being at their "breaking point." Last year, 183 officers had filed for retirement during that period.

"We are all asking the same question: How can we keep doing our job in this environment?" he said in a statement.

Minneapolis has been the most aggressive
Minneapolis has taken the most dramatic steps, essentially declaring its police department beyond reform.

The City Council on Friday officially moved to dismantle its police force and replace it with a department of community safety and violence prevention in the wake of the police killing of Floyd in that city.

The unanimous vote approving a proposed charter amendment represents a first step in a complicated process that includes a review by a public commission before the measure could ultimately end up in the hands of voters at the November ballot.

The proposed change to the charter also faces a review by a council policy and oversight committee next month. The charter commission has at least 60 days to review and make a recommendation to the council.

The statutory deadline for submitting questions on the November 3 ballot is August 21, giving voters a final say on the matter.

Nine members of the city council — a veto-proof majority — pledged on June 7 to dismantle the police department.

Earlier this month, 12 city council members unanimously approved a resolution to declare the intent to create a "transformative new model" of policing, setting off a yearlong process to envision and create a new way to keep people safe.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has pushed reforms and withdrawn from contract negotiations with the police union in an attempt to facilitate change. He has cautioned that conversations about defunding or dismantling the department "have to be thoughtful, they have to be mindful, they have to be based in fact."

"If it's totally driven by emotion, lives could be at stake as well," he said.

The city has experienced a recent spike in crime, including the shootings of 12 people — one fatally — last weekend.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey also has said he does not support abolishing or defunding the department, preferring instead what he calls "massive structural reforms" in policing.

Police budgets are cut in LA, Philly, Seattle
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has agreed to slash between $100 million and $150 million in proposed LAPD funding after Californians decried a proposal to increase its budget to $1.86 billion.

The aim, the city said, is to "build trust and bolster accountability" with more transparent police practices.

The People's Budget LA Coalition called Garcetti's pledge "a start" but said a $150 million cut for fiscal year 2020-21 would "still leave LAPD with 51% of the city's unrestricted revenues."

In another budgetary move, the police department said officers who worked large amounts of overtime during recent protests would be compensated with time off and not paid, according to an internal memo.

"During this extraordinary time, including the full mobilization of our sworn members, the Department has expended more than $40 million dollars in overtime expenses," the memo reads. "This amount far exceeds any budgetary reserve to address unusual occurrences."

LAPD officers say morale is at its lowest points in decades, with young officers angry at their superiors' perceived deference to civilian leadership.

The department tweeted earlier this month that between May 31 and June 6 homicides jumped 250% from the previous week. The number of shooting victims increased 56%.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney pulled back a planned $19 million increase in the police budget after 14 city council members said in a letter that they would not support it.

The cut totals more than $33 million after another $14 million for crossing guards and public safety enforcement officers was diverted to the city managing director's office, CNN affiliate WPVI reported.

The police department receives a sixth of the city's annual operating budget, $750 million, according to the letter. Since 2016, the police budget has increased by about $120 million.

"Many of us have realized that, as progressive and inclusive as we think we are, we still have a lot to learn," Kenney said in a statement announcing the cut along with a series of police reforms.

"We now will focus on reconciliation, on understanding, on listening — and on taking action. We will embark on a path toward real change in Philadelphia, and hopefully across America."

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is proposing to slash $20 million to the police department budget for the remainder of 2020 — as the city grapples with a shortfall of more than $300 million due to the pandemic.

The planned construction of a new police precinct has been put on hold.

Durkan also directed the police department to identify options for other reductions and said the city would consult the community about the 2021 police budget.

"Our city and country are at a historic crossroads," she said in a statement.

Vitale, the Brooklyn College professor, called the changes to law enforcement funding "an interrogation of the specific things that police are doing which have caused significant harms, have reproduced race and class inequality in America."

"It's about communicating with communities about what their needs are that have been ignored by government for generations now and demanding that they no longer turn those things over to folks whose tools for solving their problems are guns and handcuffs, coercion and threats," he said.

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