by Casey J. Bastian
The desire to implement significant reforms in American policing, particularly in metropolitan areas, is not new. However, the specific demand to literally defund the police is a nascent concept. Contemporary reform advocates assert that the enormous funding provided to law enforcement agencies should instead be focused on community programs, e.g.—affordable housing, education and vocational training, mental healthcare, substance abuse prevention and treatment, etc.
The demand is to utilize the funding in efforts to decrease the eventual need for reactionary policing by placing the emphasis on prevention. The theory holds that police won’t be as necessary if the citizens aren’t living with such foreboding circumstances. The sad reality is that movements to push for reforms often instead lead to salary increases because of police union advocacy.
Examples of this unintended consequence can be found in New York City. A series of protests in 2014 prompted newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio to proclaim that there would be numerous reforms within the New York Police Department (“NYPD”). Mayor de Blasio instituted “neighborhood policing” to focus on increasing community trust. The idea was to reimagine the NYPD’s role in the city. Both de Blasio and the city council worked to hire 1,300 new officers. The new officers established a neighborhood-level presence, increasing community meetings where those officers acting as NYPD liaisons fostered meaningful communication with the citizenry.
By 2017, the reforms had included a body camera program. It was one of the first such programs in America. But these reforms also resulted in a financial windfall for the NYPD rank and file. The Police Benevolent Association (“PBA”) is the city’s largest police union. Between 2014-2019, the PBA negotiated an almost 12 percent pay increase in response to the body camera program. “It’s an example of the ways in which promises of reform or oversight just end up with the public spending more on policing,” said Michael Sisitzky, a senior policy counsel with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The increased salary was justified as a “neighborhood policing differential.” Union representatives claim it was necessary because reforms are onerous and criticism increases the danger to police. A PBA complaint filed with the Office of Collective Bargaining described the forthcoming body camera program as one that “fundamentally alters the terms and conditions of employment of police officers by substantially modifying, among other things, their privacy, safety, duties, evaluation procedures, hours, wages and workload.” The complaint was dropped in 2017 and appears to have been a bargaining tactic.
Under New York State law, current contract provisions stay in effect until a new contract is in place; the effect caused the delay of body camera deployment for years until increased salary demands had been agreed to. Daniel DiSalvo studies union contracts at City College of New York as a political science professor. DiSalvo says, “The union has time on its side because they can hold out and not sign the contract.
Frederick Brewington is a civil rights attorney from Long Island who also served on the Nassau County police reform taskforce. Brewington believes that, “Asking officers to be more accountable and to be better members of the society that they’re intending to service, that doesn’t mean you get paid more for doing the thing you swore you were going to do when you took the oath.”
The PBA, like police unions across the country, use criticism and protests to adopt the underdog role that turns policing into a seemingly thankless and dangerous job requiring more compensation, despite the fact it’s entirely voluntary and already well paid. “Paradoxically, the hostility of the national environment can be leveraged by labor,” added DiSalvo. The death of George Floyd, and the resulting protests, have clearly increased demands for police reforms. This has been used by Las Vegas, Nassau County, and Long Island, police to also secure salary increases. “Police shouldn’t get paid to wear part of their uniform,” says Long Island United activist Emily Kaufman. Kaufman doesn’t blame the unions though, it’s their mandate.
Kaufman blames the city councils that concede to the leveraged demands. And this is exactly what is happening. In response to projected budget cuts, NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea appeared to be agitated at a city council meeting. Shea claimed that budget cuts remove the tools police need to keep the community safe. “When the tools are taken away there are real world consequences,” Shea melodramatically declared. He appears to overlook the real-world consequences felt by the numerous victims of police brutality that moved the citizens to protest for reforms and cuts in the first place.
Sisitzky sums up the position of the modern-day reform activist: “Any attempt to get more transparency around police practices has the potential to funnel more money and resources into these police agencies. Maybe the answer is not to focus on that type of reform, but rethink the scope and function of police departments and police officers.”
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