Gotham’s Dilemma: How Do We Get Our Groove Back?
Brigadier Gen. Loree Sutton, MD, Candidate for NYC Mayor
A PLAN FOR RESTORING PUBLIC TRUST IN PUBLIC SAFETY
Together Reclaiming the Nation’s Most Visionary, Inclusive & Prosperous City
Restoring public safety—as well as restoring public confidence in the City’s safety—lies at the heart of the 2021 mayoral race because it is the first step in New York City’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Until we reverse the increase in violent crime and deterioration in quality of life, we will not be able to attract people to live here, work here, invest here, do business here, and once again enjoy New York City as the number one tourist destination and capital of the world.
According to an analysis conducted by the New York Times, about five percent of New York City residents overall fled the city during the pandemic, but in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the population decreased by 40 percent. The wealthiest neighborhoods rapidly emptied out, dwarfing the flight of residents from middle and lower-income neighborhoods. The analysis found that two of the primary factors deterring residents from returning to the city are the surge in violent crime and the closing of schools. Given that the wealthiest one percent of New Yorkers contribute more than 40 percent of our municipal tax base, the loss of these residents has far reaching impacts. Our mayor has met this crisis with policies that undermine the police and by joining in the chorus disparaging wealth.
This is just one example of how public safety is a crucial component of economic recovery and the future prosperity of the city, and how our current approach is failing.
Our city is at a crossroads, with our future hanging in the balance. Maintaining safe neighborhoods, providing an efficient and safe transportation system and keeping crime low, sets the necessary conditions for individuals, families and businesses to flourish.
The first step in this process is to rebuild and restore the respect and trust that must exist between our law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
WHERE WE ARE
The number of shootings in NYC have risen 95 percent since last year; homicides are up 38 percent.
While overall crime in NYC remains relatively flat, violent crime is rising to levels not seen in many years.
Since I began my candidacy over a year ago, I have spoken to many New Yorkers. They are afraid to use the subway system, they are afraid to walk around at night. The owners and employees of convenience stores and take-out restaurants that have managed to stay open for business during the COVID-19 pandemic are afraid of being robbed or mugged. I have also spoken to many police officers who feel they have been abandoned by city hall, prevented from doing their job, and rejected by the communities they serve; this is causing an increase in depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental health issues among our law enforcement officers.
Many of the experts and pundits have suggested that the responsibility of maintaining public safety and decreasing violence in NYC must extend beyond the NYPD to be more effective. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. The police have been asked to take on duties that fall outside law enforcement. In addition to their traditional duties, they have been asked to respond to and assist people experiencing homelessness, drug addiction and mental distress. When the city’s social safety net failed New Yorkers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NYPD immediately stepped up to take on additional ‘non-traditional’ responsibilities.
The movement to “de-fund” the police posits that the police should not be involved in these non-traditional activities and goes as far as to suggest that the role of police in reducing violent crime should also be reduced.
To the contrary, the NYPD must have a continued and leading role in all public safety issues, supported by strong partnerships and coordination with the other city agencies whose responsibilities intersect with public safety. Strengthening partnerships between the police and other city agencies responsible for public safety, social services and mental health, and the communities they serve. is central to the successful future of our city.
We must resist the temptation to weaponize political rhetoric by diverting millions from the NYPD budget in the hopes of advancing policies based on academic research that sometimes lack proper context or appear to be offered as “all or nothing” prescriptions to complex public safety challenges.
As a Medical Doctor (MD), I see public safety no differently than medicine. We need to apply the right prescription, to the right problem, in the right dosage (3R) if we want to actually solve problems. In order to do this successfully, we must also be able to put political passions aside, think critically and make adjustments to these prescriptions, when the evidence tells us we are steering of course.
Proposing the development of community-based solutions to reduce violence, crime, and increase public safety without involving our police department as a key player in the process is naïve at best and at worst, fails to acknowledge that despite its current challenges and previous failures, the NYPD has been at the forefront of many progressive police reforms for the past decade.
To provide a little context, when the policy known as “stop and frisk” was ended officially in 2014, NYPD was tasked by Mayor Bill DeBlasio to develop a strategy to continue to reduce crime, while simultaneously repairing the damage done to communities as a result of these aggressive tactics. This goal became the cornerstone of the strategy that is now called “precision policing”, introduced in 2015, that assigned community-based officers to specific geographical areas to build relationships with the community, solve problems and use discretion to find alternative solutions to the criminal justice system.
This strategy also included a redesign of NYPD field training; leveraging social media to communicate with the public; extensive community meetings and outreach by the police commissioner and his staff; working with social services partners to reach at risk youth; the creation of the Office of Collaborative Policing to expand nonenforcement options, especially for first time offenders; the creation of a Crime Victim Assistance (CVA) program; and the inclusion of the communities themselves in helping to design new “community-based” strategies to complement law and order enforcement efforts in addressing such issues as low level crime, and people experiencing homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.
By examining data-driven statistical evidence, NYPD was also able to identify a core group of repeat violent offenders who were responsible for most of the serious crime and violence in the city. Precision policing allowed the NYPD to build relationships in communities, identify solutions for lower-level crime and quality of life issues, while also concentrating on this small population of dangerous recidivists responsible for serious crime and bring them to justice.
As a result of this strategy, the number of overall arrests and summonses were not only reduced each year, but overall crime also came down to historic levels.
Well intended or otherwise, strategies such as “defund” or “dis-involve” the police erode public trust, and further divide communities and law enforcement during this time of uncertainty and continued peril. To this end, we must spend more time coming together as a city, and do so with our police department, other relevant city agencies, the NYC Council, the non-profit sector, private business, community advocates and leaders to build upon existing successes and create new strategies to address and resolve the complex public safety challenges that affect us all.
Diverting funds from the police will exacerbate other problems that have contributed to the escalation of violent crime, such as a backlog of people awaiting prosecution, changes in bail policy that has put more people charged with gun possession back on the street, and changes in discovery that have made it more difficult to obtain witnesses to testify.
These challenges have been compounded by the release of inmates accused of violent crimes who are awaiting trial from city jails due to COVID-19 outbreaks; falling numbers of arrests for gun and other serious crimes because of diverted resources to manage months of protest activities, and increased police responses to people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and drug overdoses from the increased pressures of the pandemic.
Community based solutions to address “root causes” of crime and reduce violence are not a new concept in NYC but have been deeply flawed in implementation.
The current administration invested millions of dollars in neighborhoods plagued by violence since 2012 in the Cure Violence Movement (CVM) that includes many of the concepts now being suggested under the “de-fund” the police movement, such as the use of civilian community members as “ambassadors” and “violence interrupters” and community-based organizations (CBOs) to deescalate violence, offer counseling and introduce social services such as job placement.
However, Mayor DeBlasio has failed to implement the program successfully because it lacks a strategic plan, common goals, or accountability for either the money being spent, the participants in the program or the results. Many of the individuals serving as violence interrupters and ambassadors are not being properly supervised by the city and are not under the supervision of the police for fear that “association” with law enforcement would undermine their effectiveness.
However, allowing the ambassadors and violence interrupters to operate without any formal intervention training, counseling credentials, standard operating procedures, or guidance has created new problems. There have been occurrences of some of the individuals serving in these roles continuing to participate in gang life and using their positions to create “opportunities” against rivals and routinely telling the communities they work in not to cooperate with or even talk to the police. It is indeed a reasonable expectation for these ambassadors and interrupters to have “some” independence from the police to be viewed as legitimate in their respective communities, but they must be integrated into an overall public safety strategy to be truly effective.
Although these programs have had some successes stories, the combined factors of the COVID-19 pandemic, decriminalization, decarceration and anti-policing strategies such as disbanding the NYPD’s anti-crime unit have resulted in spikes of violent crime in the very neighborhoods where these millions of dollars were spent to address the “root causes” of crime.
Bottom line: How do we resolve these complex public safety challenges and reduce gun violence, without a significant role for the police? We cannot and we should not.
When evaluating the successes and failures of the NYPD, we must also ensure that NYC elected leaders take full responsibility for the inconsistency and ambivalence demonstrated over the past seven years in regard to the expectations of public safety and policing in our city.
Most recently, this lack of leadership from the Mayor’s Office greatly contributed to multiple failures detailed in a Department of Investigation NYPD Inspector General report on the NYPD’s mishandling of protests during the early days and weeks following the death of George Floyd.
The initial reactions to this report were predictably polarized by today’s environment and ranged from blanket defense of NYPD’s actions to virtual exclusion of NYPD from any meaningful input and participation in new public safety approaches being proposed by current mayoral candidates.
The fear, grievance, and outrage characterizing both extremes are simply debasing and destructive.
The IG report succeeded in laying out individual and departmental failures in exhaustive detail and also made a number of constructive recommendations. However, its failure to acknowledge some of the positive and even inspiring actions by NYPD which also took place during this same period is regrettable.
Most concerning is the report’s lack of emphasis detailing the Mayor’s failure to communicate his intentions and expectations leading up to the protests as well as the department’s shortcomings in providing clear and actionable guidance regarding the nature and implications of the emerging unrest and how it was “different” from other protests and civil disturbances it had been trained for.
Although the report detailed acute and chronic lapses in leadership and communication, it failed to also address the full and necessary context within which NYPD was operating during these protests. This included long and unpredictable shifts over the prior three months, personal and family risks from exposure, illness, and the grievous loss of colleagues due to the COVID-19. Combine this with the number of criminals, gang members, opportunists and anarchists who showed up to these protests with the intention to cause riots, loot businesses and injure police officers and you have a recipe for disaster without clear direction coming from the top to quickly identify these individuals and arrest them so the actual protesters could exercise their First Amendment rights safely and peacefully. These contributing factors are not offered as an excuse for mistakes, but as contextual variables to an already complex and unprecedented public safety response in our big city.
What was clearly missing in this instance was the character and experience to bring people together, and lead calmly, consistently, and competently in a time of extreme crisis. All of us have paid a price for the current Mayor’s enduring conflicts regarding wealth, governance, and authority — which, in this past year, have broken the City, betrayed the rights of peaceful protestors and undermined the responsibilities and reputation of the NYPD.
HOW WE MOVE FORWARD: PUBLIC SAFETY THROUGH INTEGRATED SERVICES
Instead of dividing communities and law enforcement by attempting to defund police and introduce hasty reforms that appease political interests but lack proven efficacy in reducing violence and gun crime, we must address violent crime and community safety through an evidence based, data-driven “Public Safety Through Integrated Services” approach.
- Reimagine how we deliver police services; by identifying key values and key issues, leveraging best practices, and using ethical and evidence-based decision making to create positive change. Coming up with ideas is important, but progress too often stops there. We must embed this new framework into existing NYC agency culture to create the conditions for continuous improvement.
- Reinvest in human capital; the engine that is vital to identify, grow and sustain desired outcomes. Using innovative and adaptive strategies, we must continue to value diversity, recruit, develop, and retain a 21st Century police force, increase accountability, lead at all levels, double down on officer wellness, elevate training and leverage technology to ensure continued progress.
- Rebuild relationships with all stakeholders; by continuing to foster transparent, holistic, cross functional and community-based strategies with city hall, the NYC and federal government, non-profits, and private industry to solve complex public safety challenges that deliver precision policing.
Solving these challenges is not a zero-sum game, where you must take something away from one part of city government to give it to another part of city government to achieve success. Working in this manner is in its essence punitive. Although it may look like a decisive action to the public and political activists, it only sets both the losing agency and acquiring agency up for failure.
- ESTABLISH A PUBLIC SAFETY COORDINATION COUNCIL
The Public Safety Coordination Council (PSCC) will be comprised of representatives from all city agencies that have a role in public safety. The district attorneys for each of the five boroughs would serve on the PSCC as legal advisors for their respective boroughs. We will approach public safety issues by leveraging the resources of the entire city and hold all city agencies involved accountable for results through a data-driven, city-wide performance matrix approach that measures actual results against a unified set of goals and objectives set by the PSCC.
- ESTABLISH PUBLIC SAFETY ACTION TEAMS
To mirror successes in the NYPD’s precision policing strategy, we will also create Public Safety Action Teams (PSATs) at the precinct level who will integrate social services, outreach, and other public safety efforts where needed in their respective geographical areas to reduce crime and violence, and assist New Yorkers who are experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues.
- ESTABLISH A PUBLIC SAFETY CZAR
The cabinet position of Public Safety Czar (PSC) would report directly to the Mayor to oversee all community-based public safety programs. This will include:
The creation of an oversight board to track return on investment of all funds paid to participants in programs such as CVM and provide guidance, intervention training and standardized operating procedures to ambassadors and violence interrupters that leverage all the services of NYC government, non-profits and private stakeholders were possible.
This oversight board will be multi-disciplined so participants can maintain a level of neutrality between the police and the communities in which they operate but will also be integrated into the PSCC and the PSATs as part of an overall public safety strategy.
- FAIR AND EFFECTIVE JUSTICE
A process must be established for evaluating the disparities in how the decision to make an arrest is determined, and the disparities in the infractions that result in arrests. Additionally, prosecutors are given the correct direction on when it is appropriate to prosecute and when they should be diverting to drug courts, mental health courts, veterans courts or community courts for restorative justice. There are several pilot programs in New York City for community courts—where the community is given a role—that could be expanded.
Communities and police need each other.
The NYPD cannot and should not carry the responsibilities of public safety alone, has plenty of room to improve, and must continue engaging communities to solve complex public safety challenges. Success requires strong leadership at all levels, starting with a mutually respectful relationship between the Mayor and the NYPD Commissioner, coupled with an inclusive, transparent, and collaborative process between communities and the police.
Further, to heal the current divide between some communities and the police, we must identify new and more efficient methods to increase accountability for all NYC agencies involved in public safety. If we really want to solve these complex public safety challenges for NYC, we must do it together by paying equal attention to all stakeholders.
Once again, we need to apply the RIGHT prescription, to the RIGHT problem, in the RIGHT dosage (3R) if we want to successfully solve problems.
Despite the current political rhetoric, be successful, we will need improved and increased collaboration with our police department, not less.