In the midst of a historic, nationwide uprising following the police lynching of George Floyd, and after a weekend of outsize police aggression against protests across the country, the NYPD suddenly found itself on its knees. On Sunday, Deputy Inspector Vincent Tavalaro and several other officers were pictured taking a knee with protesters in Queens. Elected officials across the city and state followed suit with streams of public statements and social media salvos condemning the brutality.
But the posturing and rhetoric of police and elected officials in New York stands in stark contrast to their actions. There is a through-line that connects police brutality to the lack of political will to hold officers accountable and the elected officials who seek to avoid doing the hard things required to protect their black and brown constituents from police terror.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, a number of reforms have been put forward: The NAACP has called on Minneapolis to ban police from using the type of restraint that was used to kill Floyd; a Colorado bill would ban choke holds and require all police to wear body cameras; a bipartisan group of senators is pushing to end the military-to-police pipeline that has funneled military-grade equipment to departments across the country; and politicians from the local to the national level are calling to defund or radically transform police departments. In New York, our organization, the Working Families Party, is fighting to repeal 50-a—a law that protects police misconduct records from public view. But none of this stands a chance if politicians continue to do what they’ve done for decades: issue statements about police violence but kill any legislation that would threaten the status quo.
Last week alone, numerous videos went viral of outrageous actions from police officers directed at protesters in New York City. On Friday, an officer was filmed shoving a woman so hard she fell to the ground and hit her head. Social media reports the woman suffered a seizure as a result and required medical attention. And on Saturday, in an action that could have had fatal consequences, two NYPD SUVs plowed into a group of protesters. As troubling as these events are, they are not aberrations. Brutality, militarism, and over-policing are standard operating procedures for a police department whose massive budget was permitted (by a Democratic mayor and Democrat-controlled City Council) to surpass those of the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, and Youth and Community Development.
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The inconvenient truth for kneeling NYPD officers and outraged elected officials is this: Condemning an egregious and barbaric murder somewhere else is far easier than finding the political will to actually enact change in your own backyard. When it comes to addressing police violence and accountability, city and state elected officials have not only fallen down on the job; they’ve directly fed the beast of over-policing and mass incarceration, putting black and brown New Yorkers directly in harm’s way.
In 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s MTA decided to crack down on fare evasion, hiring 500 additional officers to patrol the subway, at a cost of $249 million per year. As The New Republic reported, the predictable results of the surge in aggressively tracking people who avoided the $2.75 fare were “reports of riders—particularly black riders—being tackled and tased over the cost of a subway ride.”
Before the uprising, 2020 brought more of the same. January kicked off with elected officials and other bad actors leading a propaganda campaign to roll back historic bail reform legislation, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felony charges. The rollback, championed by both Governor Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, will see more New Yorkers stuck in jail for pretrial detention while there are few signs of the Covid-19 pandemic slowing down.
While the coronavirus tore through New York’s prisons, black and brown New Yorkers on the outside weren’t spared from the twin dragons of racist policing practices and the pandemic. Thirty-five of the 40 people arrested in May on social distancing violations were black. One confrontation, captured on camera, saw an officer use a stun gun to arrest a man.
The response of Mayor de Blasio, who famously ran against stop-and-frisk in his first mayoral bid, has been particularly disappointing. Saturday evening, he offered a defense of the officers who used their SUVs to simulate a monster truck rally by driving into a group of protesters. De Blasio went out of his way to reach into the minds of the officers behind the wheel, essentially telling the public the officers had no choice because the potentially fatal encounter “was created by a group of protesters blocking and surrounding a police vehicle.” The mayor lauded the department’s restraint.
He has since attempted to walk back this apologism for NYPD violence, but de Blasio’s tepid words come in stark contrast to his tweets following the horrific lynching of George Floyd. “This nation has devalued the lives of Black men for centuries,” de Blasio tweeted on May 28. “It has to end. And it will only end when there are consequences for those who do wrong. These officers need to be charged immediately.”
The mayor’s rhetoric is out of touch with the reality in his own city: It took five years for the New York City Police Department to fire Daniel Pantaleo for the on-camera killing of Eric Garner.
The contrast in statements and actions underscores what’s missing in the conversation about police accountability or the oft-dreaded talk of reform: political will. There can be no police accountability that protects black and brown communities without it. However, like all things, political will begins with the demands of the people. It includes not retaining politicians like de Blasio who run on one thing and fail to deliver. It includes holding elected officials’ feet to the fire when the messaging machine insists on “accountability” measures that do not work. In previous years, outfitting officers with body cameras and anti-bias training used to pass as significant. Today, we know that body cameras do not curb violent behavior by police and often double as low-quality snuff films of those killed by officers. We know that despite sinking millions into anti-bias training, the effectiveness of those trainings is also questionable, though they are dubbed a “best practice.” All of these best practices were implemented in Minneapolis, but we know the best practice to curb police violence is to reduce the number of interactions people have with police.
Political will means pushing elected officials from the moment they declare intentions to run. We need to push candidates not to take money from police unions, and to move candidates away from language centering police reform and toward language of overhaul. There is no reason youth programs, education, mental health services, and affordable housing are consistently on the budget chopping block, while the police defend their bloated budgets. We have all the evidence we need that divesting in policing and investing in community initiatives like violence interruption programs is the way forward. Now we need elected officials with the political will to make it happen.