New York faces challenges amid movement to defund NYPD

Thousands of protestors at hundreds of rallies in cities big and small have repeated a message over and over this summer: Defund and reform police departments.

The push for change in the wake of the death of George Floyd and global unrest that followed—to strip funding from law enforcement and spend it instead on community programs—made its way to New York, where the City Council recently voted to cut $1 billion from the NYPD's budget.

Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights in Brooklyn, said the decision that was far from seamless.

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"Communities of color have consistently said they want policing in their neighborhoods but they don't want civil or human rights violated in the process," Cornegy said. "They never called to abolish the police. They said they wanted equity as far as policing is concerned."

Cornegy considers himself a progressive Democrat but he disagrees with his liberal colleagues who have called for even more cuts to the department. He said balancing reforms and reducing police in areas where shootings are up is difficult.

"There's an increase that's not being spoken about," Cornegy said. "You can't be deafly silent when a 1-year-old baby is killed in Bedford-Stuyvesant."

In passing the budget, Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the time had come to "not only limit the size and scope of the NYPD but also reimagine how we structure criminal justice and public safety in this city."

Cornegy said budget cuts are necessary now because of the financial crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic and the NYPD is not immune to the reality of economics. In the long term, though, passing tougher criminal justice reform should be a top priority, he said.

"I don't want to have this conversation without being respectful to protestors and demonstrators that got us to a place that can author and pass substantive police reform legislation," Cornegy said. 

New York has passed several reforms since the start of the George Floyd protests. Most notably, legislation repealed a law shielding police disciplinary records. And in July, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation making an officer's use of a chokehold a crime. The police unions are challenging that policy in court.