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As New York City moves forward in tackling the long term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the way that we look at our city’s spending takes on a new meaning. With the city’s economy in a state of crisis, to say nothing of the immeasurable human toll we continue to pay, the tiny budget is projected to shrink as tax revenues will decline dramatically.

As several agencies are preparing for deep cuts to their funding, at least one agency is being spared but should not: the New York City Police Department.

Several years ago, activists and organizers (myself included) opposed the addition of over 1,000 police officers to the police department’s headcount with rallies and even protests inside City Council budget hearings. The expansion of the police department came during record low crime and on the heels of mass Black Lives Matter protests and was projected to cost city taxpayers at least $100 million per year, with that number expected to grow as time went by. 

The NYPD, we argued then, was not only drastically overfunded amid record low crime, but by allocating billions of dollars to police it would underfund programs that could lower crime and help communities of color who bore the brunt of historic race-based hyper-policing. Our budget was finite, we reasoned, and every extra dollar thrown at the NYPD was a dollar that couldn’t be used elsewhere. If the budget were to contract, we warned, other services would be slashed before the NYPD would lose any funding. 

The coronavirus has not only proved us right but has also made our budget’s priorities more important than ever. 

Recently, the Policing and Social Justice Project (www.policingandjustice.org) called for a reduction of at least $200 million from NYPD spending for the 2021 budget, which is currently being negotiated between the mayor and the City Council. Our recommendation points to at least $170 million of personnel-related costs (which accounts for the majority of NYPD spending) as well as cancelling upgrades to some of the department’s surveillance programs. Even cutting the new NYPD drone program could save the city half a million dollars.

Councilmember Donovan Richards, the influential chair of the Committee on Public Safety has proposed $50 million in cuts to the NYPD, which at less than 1% of the overall budget essentially leaves the department untouched. In fact, the $30 million in reduced overtime spending that Richards recommends be cut are due to cancelled summer events that no longer need to be policed––work that the NYPD won’t be able to perform anyway. So the overtime cuts aren’t even cuts, and they are barely a fraction of how much overtime spending has increased under de Blasio and this Council. 

Between 2014 and 2019, overtime spending by the police department grew from $485 million to $623 million per year––again, amid historic lows in crime. Overtime is a cash cow for some cops. In New York City, it’s not uncommon for police to make questionable arrests towards the end of their shift so they can make that precious overtime pay, a practice known as “collars for dollars,” in some cases making phony arrests altogether.

And yet while we must drastically cut overtime––which, along with quotas, incentivize cops to harass communities of color––the city should also undo the headcount expansion by reducing uniformed NYPD by at least 1,000 positions through hiring freezes and attrition over the next five years. With these reductions to the overall headcount, which totals over 50,000 officers and civilian employees, New York City would save up to a billion dollars in the coming years that could translate to the sparing of programs like Summer Youth Employment, which could provide virtual jobs for teens this summer and keep them off the streets. 

Other essential non-police spending could benefit with a divestment from over-policing. A fare-free MetroCard program for low-income New Yorkers could help people get back to work and boost future ridership in public transit when many will want to avoid it. Credible messenger programs, anti-violence initiatives that help reduce violent crime at its root through community interventions, last year only saw $36 million in funding. These programs could be preserved or even scaled up to address spikes in crime and even help to reinforce social distancing in a way that won’t end up in another police brutality incident.

The NYPD, the largest police force in America, has plenty of fat to trim. Under the mayor and the Council, the police department budget went from $4.6 billion in 2014 to $5.6 billion in 2019. It is the most overfunded department in the country, representing a budget that is larger than the GDP of several foreign nations. Reducing our overreliance on police was a moral imperative before COVID-19. Now, it is the pivotal moment where we can find a more efficient, more just, community-based approach to our recovery.

Josmar Trujillo is a writer and organizer based in Spanish Harlem.