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State leaders say they favor restructuring, not defunding the police

Kyle S. Mackie
Many protesters in recent weeks have called for a defunding of police departments and shifting those resources elsewhere.

There is a growing movement to defund the police, after the death of George Floyd and incidences of police brutality in the nationwide protests that came in the aftermath. New York leaders say they would rather restructure the forces than cut their budgets.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, following 10 days of protests where numerous videos showed incidences of potential police misconduct, announced that he was amending the city’s budget to take funds away from the NYPD’s $6 billion allocation, and put more money into social services including youth programs.

New York’s legislative leaders say they do not back simply cutting police forces, but they do believe there should be more money for other services. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in an interview with public radio and TV said it’s about more than simply defunding the police. 

"I think what everyone is saying is that they really want government to focus on social spending in other areas," Heastie said. "(It’s about) income equality, it’s about access to education, it’s about people needing mental health services."

Heastie, the first African American to become speaker, said Assembly Democrats have for years advocated for spending more on measures to alleviate income inequality.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African American and first woman to lead the Senate, talked of her brother in a recent speech in the Senate chamber, who quit the New York City Transit police force because he felt it was unjust to young African Americans. She also spoke of her son, who was stopped and frisked by police and ended up with a broken nose.

Stewart-Cousins said she does not back simply cutting police budgets. She said it’s really about deciding what kinds of situations require a police response. And which could be better resolved by someone else, like a mental health crisis, or aid for a homeless person.  

"Certainly we are not calling for defunding the police," Stewart-Cousins said, in an interview with public radio. "But a legitimate conversation about whether or not the police are the best people to send for a situation is, I believe, a valid conversation." 

State lawmakers took several steps this week to reform police practices, including banning the use of chokeholds as a form of restraint, and repealing a law that was used to shield police disciplinary records from the public. 

Some state Senators want to do more. Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat from the Bronx, has introduced a bill to ban police use of tear gas, pepper spray and other chemical agents. During the past couple of weeks of protests, police in New York and in many cities across the nation have used the agents on peaceful protesters. Biaggi said there’s no good reason for police to ever use tear gas.  

"It is meant to trigger pain in people, which we have seen in the videos we’ve watched across the entire country," said Biaggi.

She said it’s even worse to use the chemical agents during a pandemic, because they cause people to cough and sneeze and remove their masks.

"We’re just increasing the risk of spreading COVID as well," Biaggi said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has at times praised and criticized the police, said "one off" bills regulating a single aspect of policing is not the best approach. He thinks police forces need to be fundamentally "reimagined" and restructured to eradicate systemic racism.

"It’s not about tear gas," Cuomo said. "It’s much broader than that. This is inherent racism. It’s about decades and decades of injustice."

Cuomo said the "moment" for real change has come, and should not be wasted.

Biaggi said she agrees.

"There is no one act that will solve systemic racism and injustice," she said. "It requires collective efforts, and many, many actions over time that build on one another."

Not everyone is in favor of making changes to the police. Many Republican lawmakers voted against some of the police reform bills, and State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy, in a statement, said de Blasio’s call to defund the police is "extreme" and "radical," and he predicts it would make citizens less safe against terrorism, and have "catastrophic and deadly consequences."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.