City Hall’s approval of a record $98.7 billion budget that included a $200 million dollar increase to the NYPD felt like a betrayal, many police reform advocates said.
"A lot of us are losing hope that any of these politicians are actually in the same thinking as us constituents of the city,” said Samy Feliz, whose brother was killed by officers after a routine traffic stop in 2019.
The increase of the department’s roughly $6 billion budget will largely go to ballooning overtime expenses and information technology upgrades.
The City Council’s 39-6 vote to approve the 2021-22 budget marks a flashpoint in the debate around public safety and police accountability. Calls for reform, including to “defund the police,” were born out of protests over police shootings across the country over the past year, including the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Many of the council members who supported the budget said the increase in gun violence across the city, including two recent high-profile shootings in the tourist-packed Times Square, impacted their vote.
Police data show 765 shootings as of July 4 — an increase of 210, or nearly 38%, from the same period last year.
“What we've heard over the past year is that people want to find a balance between making sure we're holding our city agencies accountable and also to ensure that we're keeping people safe,” said Councilman Keith Powers, who voted yes on the budget.
But four of the six no votes — Antonio Reynoso, Brad Lander, Inez Barron and Jimmy Van Bramer — said the NYPD budget specifically factored into their decision.
“We already have the highest numbers of police officers per capita of any big city in America,” said Lander, a Brooklyn councilman and the presumed Democratic nominee for city comptroller who has pushed for more resources to go toward community-based initiatives. “Right now, that's not getting the job done.”
Shifting resources from the police to community-based resources is an idea that’s shared by reform advocates like Feliz.
His older brother, Allan Feliz, was pulled over in 2019 under suspicion of not wearing a seatbelt.
Feliz was shot in the chest and died after an ensuing struggle between him and the arresting officers.
“What we've gone through has been a complete shock to us,” Samy Feliz said. “No one expects to lose their loved one in the way, in the shape and in the matter that we have.”
While the state attorney general did not find the officers criminally liable for the death, the case led to recommendations for the police department, including removal of the NYPD from routine traffic enforcement.
Council members who voted for the budget point to reforms that have been enacted over the past year, including disciplinary guidelines for police officers and a recent package of bills requiring the NYPD to track the race and ethnicity of motorists pulled over in traffic stops and makes it easier to sue cops for improper searches and excessive force.
“While there are longstanding issues with the NYPD’s budget that require more scrutiny, including excessive overtime, the slight increase in their FY22 budget is associated with the gun violence crisis and prevention, and funding to enhance landmark police reform legislation that the City Council passed earlier this year to include new civilian positions, community ambassadors, mental health professionals, and early intervention discipline analysts,” said Councilwoman Adrienne Adams, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, in a statement.
Anti-policing advocates, however, say the increased crime rates and their call to reduce the police budget are not mutually exclusive.
“We are really equally concerned with reducing violence, and we want to invest in programs that actually work,” said Ileana Méndez-Peñate, program director for Communities United for Police Reform.
Organizations like Communities United for Police Reform and Justice Committee are calling for a shift in resources from the NYPD to a range of social and community-based services, such as mental health, housing and youth employment.
And while the budget does feature increases in funding for community programs like the "Cure Violence" initiative — a network of community-based groups that work to prevent violence before it happens — advocates say it’s not nearly enough.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Méndez-Peñate said. “The community-based organizations that are providing mental health services are severely understaffed. They are completely overwhelmed in terms of how much mental health needs are arising after COVID and so the amount that's being invested is just not — it's crumbs, basically.”
The police budget increase is a sharp reversal from last year when the mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson pledged to reduce the NYPD’s roughly $6 billion budget by $1 billion, police reform advocates say.
Budget watchdogs say the cut ended up being much less. And reform advocates argue it was largely cosmetic, pointing to things like the transfer of school safety agents to the Department of Education, which was already underwriting the resource.
“There is a narrative that there was a significant cut to the NYPD in last year's budget, but the truth is — there was not,” said Lander, who is also the projected winner of the Democratic primary for city comptroller.
Despite the disappointments from the newest budget, advocates are still hopeful their calls will be heard as the city next year welcomes a more progressive council.
“We are feeling really strong,” Méndez-Peñate said. “We feel like the council that is coming in is a council who really understands the importance of how budgets are moral documents that reflect what our city needs, and what our city should be prioritizing.”
And while the primary winner for mayor, Eric Adams, a former police captain, is largely considered moderate on the issue of police reforms, many are still optimistic that the growing progressive voice in city leadership will be a counterbalance and committed to keeping the pressure on.
“At this point I know I speak for a lot of New Yorkers — we want change,” Feliz said. “And when we say we want change, it isn’t just that over-the-top sugar-coated change. We want change that’s really going to hit home.”