After the murder of George Floyd, this country could no longer ignore the cries for real reform to address the legacies of systemic racism across our society. When you put on the uniform and have power over someone’s life as a police officer does, or as I did in Afghanistan, you also take on a higher responsibility to demonstrate not only the courage to run into danger, but also the composure to show restraint. What Derek Chauvin did was abhorrent and spotlighted once again how much more America must do to create a truly fair criminal justice system.
It was the responsibility of all levels of government to respond. In the House, we moved swiftly to pass with bipartisan support the Justice in Policing Act. However, in New York City, rather than using the moment to build a more just society, the Mayor and others governed by hashtag, cutting the police department budget instead of shifting resources within the department to what has proven to work. That’s shortsighted and wrong.
I oppose #DefundThePolice and spoke out against efforts to cut funding to our District Attorney’s office because doing so will undermine the most critical goal of the moment: to build a city and country where relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve are based on trust and mutual respect. Programs that would have been eliminated in the D.A’s office alone included the Community Partnership Unit, the Alternatives to Incarceration Unit, and the HOPE program which diverts low-level drug offenders towards health and treatment services. These programs serve as the foundation for a fairer, more just criminal justice system. While we successfully fought back against those foolhardy cuts to the D.A.‘s office, we were not so lucky elsewhere.
The problems we face didn’t start with George Floyd’s murder. Cities beyond Minneapolis have dealt with crises of confidence in their police force, and many of the most successful cases implemented reforms that required more money and officers, not less.
New York City was successful when it invested in programs like the late, great Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson’s pioneering Begin Again, which helped hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers vacate outstanding warrants after failing to answer summons for low-level offenders; the vast majority of which are concentrated in low-income communities of color. And let’s not forget that the same politicians now calling to defund the police were some of the loudest voices clamoring for more Community Police Officers because they knew that strategy works.
On Staten Island, the rift between the police and communities of color was never starker than when Eric Garner died. Yet while other boroughs and cities saw acts of violence in recent weeks, Staten Island had only peaceful protests. That wasn’t luck. It was because of the incredible relationship our police precincts forged with the community over the years.
Today, there isn’t a community event where police officers are not in attendance, protecting, praying, playing, and working with Staten Islanders of every background. That kind of commitment takes time, money, and resources—the opposite of what the Mayor decided to do. That’s not to say there isn’t still tension, that the pain is gone, or that work does not remain. But as long as there’s work to be done, we must continue to build a community where everyone feels safe and no one is treated unjustly by the police without accountability. Cutting the NYPD budget and reducing pay for our cops is not how to accomplish this.
But I don’t want to hear from any politician who complains about cuts to police departments while remaining silent as their own leadership in Washington seeks to let New York State and City go bankrupt as a result of fighting COVID-19. Without the funding the federal government owes New York, police officers are going to be laid off, along with first responders, frontline workers, teachers, and other essential public servants.
I don’t care if you are Mayor Bill de Blasio or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrat or Republican: if you cut funding to the programs that keep our communities safe, that provide alternatives to incarnation for young people who made mistakes, are in the throes of addiction, or that have proven to help build trust between law enforcement and communities of color — I’ll be the first one to take you on. We’ve seen that programs that focus on addressing mental health, increasing community outlets for our youth, and diversity and bias training work—and yet somehow, they’re always the first on the chopping block.
The mayor may have made cuts to the NYPD, but in Washington, D.C. we’re at risk of even more devastating cuts just because Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about New Yorkers. The work of ensuring what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others never happens again is not something that can be accomplished with one bill or budget. It will take time, hard work, and far more leadership than we are seeing from too many of our elected leaders. Let’s get to work.
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