The next mayor of New York is going to be in big trouble the minute he or she takes office. If not before. Crime — which had decreased for 25 consecutive years and by 2019 fallen to lows not seen since the Dodgers played in Brooklyn — has skyrocketed, with no end in sight.
The city’s civic will has been tested and found wanting. And there has been a deep erosion of trust of and by the NYPD, the organization responsible for Gotham’s safety. Our next mayor must reverse course, starting with ditching the wrong ideas that have brought the city to this point.
There has been a lot of talk about defunding the police. That’s a hashtag, not a sophisticated policy calculated to boost public safety. And it’s ridiculous. In what world does less enforcement bring about more adherence to the law? This is New York. Ask around. All communities, from the most affluent to the poorest, want to feel safe in their streets. The presence of police officers, as studies have shown, is the one sure sign that the place is not out of control.
How did we get here?
In the 1970s, New York state and the federal government lost the will to protect many of the most vulnerable. Unable or unwilling to effectively staff and run mental institutions, state and federal authorities shuttered them and abandoned their inhabitants. These men and women were supposed to be placed in treatment facilities or monitored at home, but the promised alternative facilities weren’t built, and home monitoring went largely unfunded and unpracticed.
Where did these unfortunates go? To the streets. You walked out the front door, and there was a gentleman lying on the sidewalk on a piece of cardboard. His behavior was likely to create disorder and crime. Unable to function within society, that gentleman and many others like him couldn’t hold down jobs or find or afford housing.
We closed the mental institutions and helped create a societal problem that plagues us even now: the homeless population. And who was supposed to handle this problem? Cops. Who was responsible for responding to and preventing the inevitable crime that ensued? Cops. When the safety net tore or was intentionally torn, who was there to pick up the pieces? Cops.
The profession is more than willing to cede responsibility for the social services it is now providing. That would allow the police to return to its traditional job, the full-time work of preventing crime and disorder. Too few have been asked to do too much with too little for too long. And it has finally caught up with us.
But when there is no fully capable replacement for what cops do, limiting policing would be disastrous for the health of the city. The defunders would take 2,000 cops off the streets and replace them with what, exactly? When excellent programs have been designed and are in place at agencies specifically empowered and able to fulfill them, the NYPD will pass the baton happily. These programs will cost considerable municipal money, but if they solve a problem that has expanded crime and exploded disorder, it will have been well worth the investment.
As it is, those programs don’t exist at anywhere near the capacity the Big Apple needs. In the meantime, we don’t need to defund the police — we need to re-fund law enforcement. New York must hire more cops and train them ever-more intensively in areas such as de-escalation techniques and implicit-bias recognition.
In Boston in the 1970s, a recruit would go through the academy in eight weeks and be put on the streets with a gun by Christmastime. Now, NYPD recruits spend six months in the academy, which is still a short time to train young men and women in the increasingly complex world of law enforcement, considering the growing social-service demands. Cops in Europe are trained for as long as two years before being elevated to the force.
New York’s finest need more expenditures of time and money, not less. We must regain and then reinforce the trust between the community and the profession. There are candidates for mayor who actually pledge to strip the city of thousands more of its protectors. Fewer cops, more criminals? That’s no platform to run on. That’s no city to live in. Defund the police? No, re-fund!
Former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton is the author, with Peter Knobler, of “The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America.”