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Robert Gangi Headshot

Mayor de Blasio and the Challenge of Police Reform

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New York City's next mayor, Bill de Blasio, faces no more daunting challenge than adopting measures to reform the NYPD's current harsh and unjust practices. Especially since the federal court of appeals recent ruling blocking a lower court's order mandating changes in stop and frisk, some observers have suggested that a Mayor de Blasio might back off his campaign pledge to significantly amend the practice.

While politicians often soften or even renege on campaign promises once they assume office, we have several reasons to believe that a Mayor de Blasio will not follow this cynical course regarding policing policies in NYC.

First, regarding the stop and frisk court case, although the recent ruling was disappointing for us police reformers, our view has always been that, while potentially very helpful, litigation is not critical to the success of our efforts to change the NYPD. The likelihood of there being meaningful police reform in NYC depends almost entirely on the politics of the issue, on a shifting political landscape. Our mantra could very well be, "It's the politics, stupid."

And for various reasons, including the good work of reform advocates, the politics of stop-and-frisk and other abusive police tactics has changed in dramatic ways, one indicator of which has been polls showing that a majority of New Yorkers oppose stop and frisk. Recognizing this new reality, all the leading candidates in the recent democratic mayoral primary were sharply critical of the tactic. Moreover, the two top vote-getters in that primary, de Blasio and Bill Thompson, promised to replace Ray Kelly as New York's police chief. And all of them, including de Blasio, pledged to withdraw Bloomberg's appeal and to implement the provisions of the lower court's original decision.

Another politically relevant consideration in how de Blasio will likely approach the issue is the prevailing wisdom that his outspoken criticism of the NYPD was a key factor in his sudden political ascendance. Stop and frisk, for example, was, in addition to his young son's afro, a centerpiece of the famous television ad that helped lift him to first place among the democratic mayoral candidates. Not delivering on police reform would seriously compromise his standing and credibility among his base of liberals and people of color whose support was central to his primary victory. Also, he will need the continuing support of these groups as he pursues his unapologetically progressive agenda, not only regarding criminal justice matters, but also in areas like education, housing, and child care.

There is another way how New York's politics favor police reform today. The deservedly notorious practice of stop and frisk does not, unfortunately, represent the whole terrible story of bad policing in NYC. All too painfully true that stop and frisk targets young black and brown men. Also too true that NYPD officers regularly harass and mistreat, needlessly ticket, and falsely arrest members of the city's other marginalized groups: homeless people, persons in psychiatric crises, LGBTQ individuals, sex workers, and street vendors.

Fortunately, from a policy standpoint, reforms are available to the de Blasio administration that can not only effectively correct police practices that victimize people unjustly but have the added appeal of being easy political lifts, as being the thing that even the best policymakers love, the low hanging fruit that they can implement with little or no political or bureaucratic risk or opposition. Moreover, many of these changes would add little or no costs to the NYPD budget and would likely even save money.

Possible specific reforms here include disbanding the so-called peddlers squad that bullies and badgers street vendors and shift responsibility for supervising them to the Department of Consumer Affairs; stop charging people with engaging in prostitution simply because they have condoms in their possession; establish a program of Community Crisis Intervention Teams, which have worked successfully in other large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles and which involve trained police officers collaborating with mental health professionals to improve police interactions with the mentally ill; eliminate as the basis for making arrests "quality of life" offenses like disorderly conduct that unfairly target homeless people; and, dismantle the unwarranted surveillance program of Muslim communities.

Finally, the fundamental change needed in NYPD's current law enforcement strategies fits in squarely with de Blasio's vision of lower case democratic governance, of a more equitable city where people throughout NY engage as much as possible in the decision-making processes that affect their neighborhoods and their lives. From a big picture standpoint, de Blasio and his criminal justice team should focus on reorienting the NYPD approach to promoting public safety away from aggressive and punitive policing, sometimes called proactive policing, towards community-oriented, problem solving measures that emphasize communicating and collaborating with neighborhood leaders and residents and local service programs, community centers, and churches. Redirecting policing policies in this way will not only score political points for the new Mayor with the diverse range of the city's residents, but also serve to create a more livable and inclusive society for all New Yorkers.