Activists in the U.S. claim partial victory in long battle to reform, defund police departments

Activists in New York didn't get the billion-dollar budget cut they were calling for, but experts say across the U.S., shifts in policing policy show that protests in the wake of George Floyd's death have led to some gains and given a sense of urgency to the movement to reform how police operate.

Budget fights in New York and cities across the country bring gains, disappointments

Protesters in Manhattan call for the defunding of the New York Police Department in the 'City Hall Autonomous Zone' on June 30, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

For the thousands of protesters who marched through the streets of New York for more than 30 consecutive days demanding changes in policing, the headlines emerging from the city's budget debate should have signalled victory.

"New York Police Department's budget has been slashed by $1 billion," wrote CNN.

"De Blasio Agrees to Cut NYPD Funding by $1 Billion," said the Wall Street Journal.

"NY City Council approves slashing $1B from NYPD budget," said Fox News.

It seemed that groups like Communities United for Police Reform had achieved their goal when city council voted last week: a $1 billion US cut from the New York Police Department's almost $6 billion operating budget, with money reinvested in community programs.

But a closer look found that the actual number was nowhere close to the billion-dollar mark, and some of the "cuts" were just cosmetic changes, where expenses were shifted from one city department to another.

"It was a lot of funny math and budget tricks to try to make it seem like it was a billion-dollar cut, but it really wasn't," said Andrea Colon, lead organizer with the Rockaway Youth Task Force and a member of Communities United for Police Reform.

A court officer walks past a wall of graffiti across from a protest in support of defunding the police in New York last month. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The city budget was the latest battle in the fight to reform policing spurred on by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who was killed after a police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest on May 25. The officer is facing a second-degree murder charge in Floyd's death.

Overall, activists and supporters of police reform found that while the conversation has shifted in their favour, there are still numerous challenges to defunding the police, even in one of the most liberal cities in the U.S.

Devil in the details

Among the biggest cuts promised was more than $300 million by shifting school safety officers from the NYPD to the Department of Education.

But ultimately that shift didn't happen, and the budget for that unit, still under the auspices of the police, will go up next year.

"The mayor, the speaker, the city council failed us," Colon said.

The waves of protests sparked by Floyd's death led to a number of reforms in New York and across the country. The NYPD disbanded its anti-crime unit, a group of about 600 officers tied to some of the city's most notorious shootings. 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday, the day after the budget passed, that while he respects everyone who is protesting, the vast majority of New Yorkers want a safe city.

"They appreciate that our police are there to keep us safe and they want to see policing get fairer, more respectful," said the mayor, who is often caught between his progressive supporters and a vocal and politically powerful police union.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, pictured in September 2019, said that while he respects everyone who is calling for the city's police department to be defunded, the vast majority of New Yorkers want a safe city. (Gretchen Ertl/Reuters)

Asked about the cuts, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told a local Fox affiliate, "You're seeing the city council bow to mob rule."

The budget did eliminate two incoming classes of new officers, a staff cut of close to 1,200 — a good step that probably wouldn't have come without the pressure of thousands marching daily, said Alex Vitale, author of the book The End of Policing.

"There was no way that was going to happen a month ago, so that's a very concrete thing, and it's a sign of a shift in momentum," said Vitale, whose book is considered by activists as a blueprint for the Defund the Police movement.

'A quantum shift'

Vitale, who has been advocating for police reform for three decades, said when you step back and look at the big picture, the progress in the debate since Floyd's death is remarkable. 

While the budget battle in New York didn't end in victory for reformers, he said, it's a step in the right direction.

"We did not win the big number that people were going for, but no one even imagined that big number a month ago as being possible," Vitale said.

He said across the country, in state assemblies and city council chambers, police budgets that were once untouchable are now fair game for cuts. The conversation has also shifted to rethinking how much responsibility police forces should have, he said. 

Vitale pointed to cities like Oakland, Calif., which voted to remove police from schools, and Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are considering alternatives to policing on issues like substance abuse, homelessness and mental health.

Protesters hold up signs as they block a freeway in Los Angeles during a demonstration on July 1 organized by a group called Active Advocate calling for the defunding of police and the removal of District Attorney Jackie Lacey. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Vitale's book has afforded him the opportunity to travel the country meeting with community organizations. He said he saw a consensus growing around police reform, but he thought it would take years to get to the point the U.S. is at now. 

"It's a quantum shift. The quantity of change is so great and it's of a different quality," Vitale said. "It's very dramatic, it's exhausting, it's inspiring, but there's just a tremendous amount of work still to be done."

Confronting racism

Part of the work that still needs to be done, said Alexis Hoag, a lecturer at Columbia Law School in New York, is reconciling the country's history of slavery and the legacy of institutional racism that remains today.

Hoag referred to training in Germany, where new officers learn about how policing played a role in the Nazi regime and how it informs their work in the modern era. She said she'd like to see similar training for new officers in how police throughout U.S. history were used to enforce racist policies.

"I think about how powerful that would be if new law enforcement in this country were educated and trained about law enforcement's participation, compliance in the reign of terror that occurred across this country," Hoag said.

She said the mass demonstrations have achieved some victories, particularly at the state-level, and pointed to the repeal of 50-A in New York, a law that shielded officers' personnel records from scrutiny.

Another victory came in Colorado last month, when it became one of the first states to end qualified immunity for officers, a law that protects police from civil liability. 

"The fact that laypeople talk about qualified immunity is amazing to me as a lawyer," Hoag said. 

A growing conversation

Hoag said that shows how far the conversation has shifted, noting that concepts like defunding the police weren't even in her vocabulary when she got into law school 15 years ago.

Now, she said, the students she sees entering law school come armed with these ideas.

"They are quite aggressive and clear in what they see as a just society," Hoag said, "It's exciting, it's heartening, and they're going to be in positions where they're setting state and federal policy in 10 or 15 years. 

Demonstrations to defund the police took place across the U.S., including this one in New York last month, after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Vitale said there is also energy at the community level, where the majority of change needs to happen. Demand for his expertise has grown, and where he used to take part in 40 to 50 events a year with community groups discussing police reform, he can now do that many in the space of two or three weeks, thanks to video conferencing. 

One day last week, he addressed groups in Houston, Ann Arbor, Mich., and New York City. He said with municipal budget cycles coming to an end, the effort put toward cutting police budgets needs to shift to organizing.

"We've got some victories and now we need to take stock and plan for the future," Vitale said.


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.