NEW YORK • Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged for the first time to cut New York City’s police funding, following several nights of protests against police violence and mounting demands that he overhaul a department whose tactics have caused widespread consternation.
The mayor declined to say precisely how much funding he planned to divert to social services from the New York Police Department, which has an annual budget of US$6 billion (S$8.4 billion), representing more than 6 per cent of Mr de Blasio’s proposed US$90 billion budget.
Mr de Blasio said on Sunday that the details would be worked out with the city council in advance of the July 1 budget deadline.
“We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation and we want to figure out what makes sense,” he said.
Just last Friday, Mr de Blasio had expressed scepticism about cutting police funding, even as he noted that all city agencies might face cuts, absent more financial assistance from the federal government.
His Sunday morning reversal was one of two shifts in his stance towards protesters. In the early morning, he announced on Twitter that New York City’s first curfew since World War II would end immediately, a day earlier than planned. He attributed the course correction to his belief that the protests had become more peaceful in recent days.
The mayor’s announcement that he favoured the police budget cut represented the latest turn in his fraught relationship with the police department.
During Mr de Blasio’s first year in office in 2014, Mr Eric Garner died in a police chokehold on Staten Island, and his final words, “I can’t breathe”, became a rallying cry for activists across the US.
Mr de Blasio, whose wife is African-American, tried to empathise with protesters, telling reporters at that time that he had advised their son Dante “on how to take special care” during interactions with officers.
When, later that month, two police officers were fatally shot in Brooklyn while they were sitting in their patrol car, a police union leader said Mr de Blasio had blood on his hands. Police officers turned their backs to the mayor when he attended the officers’ funerals – events that proved to be a turning point in the de Blasio administration, making the mayor more eager to accommodate the department.
Now, Mr de Blasio is facing a possible US$9 billion budget gap and significant unrest within his own administration over his handling of both the coronavirus crisis and the mass protests following the Minneapolis police killing of Mr George Floyd, an African-American.
COMMITMENT TO CHANGE
We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation and we want to figure out what makes sense.
MR BILL DE BLASIO, Mayor of New York City.
Many protesters and observers have accused the police department of using violent tactics during the unrest while enforcing the curfew, which began last Monday.
Last Saturday, dozens of employees at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice signed a statement demanding that Mr de Blasio support several policing reforms, including a ban on the use of chokeholds by the police proposed by the city council. Mr De Blasio has resisted signing on to the measure unless it includes an exemption for officers in life-threatening situations.
Last Saturday, Mr de Blasio sent an e-mail to staff assuring them that he and his wife Chirlane McCray understood “how deeply this moment hurts”.
“We will never stop fighting for you. Black Lives Matter in New York City,” read the letter, which was seen by The New York Times.
While US Democrats have largely embraced the activists packing into streets nationwide to decry the killings of black men and women by law enforcement, they have so far expressed wariness at protesters’ calls to defund the police.
And President Donald Trump has seized on the funding issue as an attack line against his Democratic opponent for the White House, Mr Joe Biden.
Mr Trump wrote in a Sunday tweet: “Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’. I want great and well paid LAW ENFORCEMENT. I want LAW & ORDER!”
Former vice-president Biden had pledged a slate of criminal justice reforms before the latest wave of protests, including stepping up Department of Justice investigations of police abuse and increased funding to build ties between the police and community members.