New York City’s next mayor will inherit the nation’s most expensive police department, following a public health crisis, a rise in violence and international demands to reform – or transform completely – how police officers interact with the communities they serve.
In their first debate appearance on Thursday, eight Democratic candidates for mayor – among 15 set to face off in a primary election on 22 June – clashed over their approaches to the future of the New York Police Department and how to spent its more than $5bn budget.
The debate follows a Times Square shooting that injured three people, including a four-year-old girl. Shootings citywide within the first few months of 2021 have spiked by 40 per cent from the same period last year.
As of 9 May, 146 people have been killed this year, compared to 115 murders by this time last year.
The debate also follows a year of uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and cries to “defund the police” as cities confront police killings, racist violence and compounded crises from the coronavirus pandemic and socioeconomic disparities.
Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential candidate and among more moderate candidates in the mayoral race, said that “the first thing I’d do as mayor us go to our police force and say, ‘This city needs you.’”
“’Defund the police’ is the wrong approach,” he said. “You are vital to our city’s recovery because there is no recovery without public safety.”
New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, the leading progressive candidate in the race, has urged police to ramp up clearance rates, which plunged during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We cannot in this moment simply go back to the [Rudy Giuliani] style of policing that impacted Black and Brown children and scarred them,” he said.
Mr Stringer called for a “two-tier approach” to policing that includes stopping violence and protecting children from entering the criminal justice system.
Mr Stringer, Dianne Morales and Maya Wiley have called for cutting the NYPD budget and moving funds into community programmes and crisis management to prevent police officers from responding to mental health calls while investing in housing, education and efforts to combat poverty.
The city receives roughly 500 daily calls to 911 for mental health-related issues. The city recently launched a pilot programme to dispatch mental health professionals and prevent sending NYPD officers to those calls, which is expected to expand citywide.
“Safety is not synonymous with policing,” said Ms Morales, who has called for cutting $3bn from the NYPD into a community response team to respond to certain service calls. “We need to recognise that the police respond to crime, they don’t prevent crime.”
She added that if the size and budget of the city’s police reflected its safety, “we would be the safest city in the country.”
Ms Wiley said she would move $1bn from NYPD’s budget to “create trauma-informed care in schools.”
“When we do that violence goes down and graduation rates go up,” she said.
Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams – a former police officer who has received the conservative New York Post’s endorsement – said that the city must “fight violence with prevention and intervention.”
Mr Yang and Mr Adams support reinstating plainclothes units that NYPD leadership disbanded in 2020 following accusations of excessive force and provoking violence. Mr Adams said police must address the “real pervasive handgun problem” on the city’s streets.
All of the candidates support the public release of police body-camera footage following police shootings. That footage currently is held for 30 days, with exceptions.