It has been a little over a year since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, a tragedy that sparked a national movement to reimagine the American criminal justice system.
Since then, police incidents nationwide have pushed protesters to ramp up calls to "defund the police." It’s fair to say that the first real test for criminal justice reform is in the Democratic primary race for New York City mayor on Tuesday. Many observers maintain that the winner of the crowded primary is the de facto winner of the November election.
The city needs a mayoral candidate who can show the country that it is indeed possible to overhaul the police and keep the public safe. Defunding the police and public safety are not binary choices.
All too frequently, as goes New York so goes the rest of the nation. When the focus turns to policing and the criminal justice system, the axiom couldn’t be truer: The city's communities of color have been over-supervised, over-policed and harassed into incarceration; the shackling effects of such policies as the militarization of police, “stop and frisk” and cash bail are also reflected across the country.
When it comes to delivering justice, the winning candidate must be on the right side of history. The federal government hasn't made criminal justice reform its top priority, so changes must come at the state and local level. New York City can set the tone.
Unfortunately, some of the race’s top contenders are positioned as opponents to change, arguing that police should have free rein to keep crime under control.
Entrepreneur-turned-candidate Andrew Yang said, “The truth is that New York City cannot afford to defund the police.”
The New York Police Department is hardly on a pauper’s budget. The $11 billion annual funding is the highest in the nation, bigger than many countries’ military budgets. That budget couldn’t prevent a shooting in Times Square, one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods in the world. Is there any other institution that gets more money for doing a terrible job?
Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president and a former police officer, has sounded much more like the heavy-handed Rudy Giuliani when he recently advocated for the much-maligned former stop-and-frisk practice, saying, oxymoronically, it can be a “great tool” when used correctly.
Enter Dianne Morales. She stands in stark contrast to her Democratic colleagues who sound like the law-and-order candidates of old. She has called for redistributing a portion of the $11 billion police budget to community-service projects. Her view on the matter is personal: “My 22-year-old son has been subjected to racial profiling and abusive police behavior,” she told me in a recent conversation. “He was even pepper-sprayed by the police while protesting police violence and marching to protect his civil rights last summer.”
What’s clear is we have all seen the harm that police have caused to our communities and the kind of false conflation of policing and public safety when, in fact, so many of the communities that are over-policed are also disproportionately harmed by police.
Unfortunately, the Morales campaign has lost steam. She has been the only remaining candidate strongly embracing "defund the police" as a policy. Yang and Adams likely won't introduce reform. Kathryn Garcia and Scott Stringer have staked out the center, leaving the candidate backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maya Wiley, alone among the race’s leaders in the police reform camp. Wiley has been critical of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the police, and hopefully she can adopt the policies needed to stop the criminalization of Black and brown people.
So, what is needed? The entire nation needs politicians who can address three key pillars: jails, judiciary and the police.
It cost New York City nearly half a million dollars to incarcerate one person last year. As of 2017, according to Pew, funding spent on jailing inmates added up to $25 billion nationwide.
And incarceration, even pretrial, has a huge impact on a person’s health, both mental and physical, and deeply affects their ability to stay alive, much less thrive. While the notorious Rikers Island jail is due to be shuttered, we shouldn’t be building replacements without a move toward decarceration. It doesn’t make sense to replace one jail cell with another "more humane" jail cell if the goal isn’t the immediate end to mass incarceration.
One of the most critical roles the mayor has is the appointment of city judges. They are the gatekeepers of the institution, and we need to appoint people who understand that people accused or convicted of crimes have been victimized themselves and continue to be by the system. This is key to executing a comprehensive transformation of our criminal legal system.
For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike touted their tough-on-crime credentials. Famously in New York City, Giuliani embraced the “broken windows” theory of policing, taking a zero-tolerance approach to petty crime. As a senator, Joe Biden helped pass the 1994 crime bill, which he has admitted was a mistake.
We need police accountability. Police who break the public’s trust must be punished in a way that is swift and unequivocal.
We need to replace the police with a Community First Responders Department, as proposed by Morales. The department would deploy skilled public servants to target homelessness, mental health and substance abuse. These workers would be trained at intervention and de-escalation techniques and would be part of a system of human-service providers. That’s how we break the cycle.
This mayor’s race may be the city’s most consequential in a generation.
We need elected officials who embrace a movement for justice. We need politicians who understand we can’t incarcerate our way out of violence, and who will invest in people, not prisons. We need candidates across our country who will reallocate our money from the police back to our communities.
Ashish Prashar is the Global CMO at R/GA, a global branding firm, and a justice reform activist. He sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community and Just Leadership. Follow him on Twitter: @Ash_Prashar
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Want to know how defund police battle plays out? Watch NYC election.