The New York Police Department has liquidated its anti-crime unit, reassigning some 600 plainclothes cops to neighborhood policing and detective work as protesters nationwide demand reforms in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea announced the disbanding of the unit in a press conference on Monday, calling it “a seismic shift in the culture of how the NYPD polices this great city.” Heralding the move as “closing one of the last chapters of ‘Stop, Question and Frisk’” – the controversial policing tactic beloved by ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and criticized by civil rights groups for its wildly disproportionate targeting of black men – Shea suggested it was time for the force to “move forward.”
We can [police this city] with brains. We can do it with guile. We can move away from brute force.
Shea acknowledged the move was “not without risk,” as it might result in fewer guns being taken off the street – the stated aim of the anti-crime unit. The unit was created just five years ago with the sole mission of confiscating illegal guns by building cases and gathering evidence rather than conducting street-side “jump-outs,” essentially springing from the ashes of the moribund stop-and-frisk policy after a judge ruled it unconstitutional and racially discriminatory the previous year.
However, in just those few short years the unit managed to accumulate quite a negative reputation. A 2018 analysis by the Intercept found plainclothes officers were involved in nearly a third of fatal shootings since 2000, despite comprising just 6 percent of the NYPD, and a 2016 report by the force itself found about half the officers involved in “adversarial conflicts” where a gun was deliberately fired were plainclothes cops.
Police response to the George Floyd protests has divided the city, with police union bosses accusing the media of “vilifying” the force and department chief Terry Monahan insisting the rank and file are doing a “fantastic job” even as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo promise to deliver the reforms protesters are demanding. While de Blasio at first praised the police for displaying “restraint” even as they savagely beat unarmed demonstrators, he later pledged to cut the department’s budget and apply the money to social programs aimed at “communities of color.”
The flip-flop mirrors his political career. Elected in 2014 on a platform centered around reforming the police, he largely failed to deliver, aside from taking credit for court-ordered reforms that were already in motion when he took office (including the judgment that ended to ‘stop and frisk’). Despite his progressive image and racial-justice rhetoric – his wife is black, and he didn’t hesitate to use his mixed-race children in campaign ads – former aides have claimed he never had any intention of following through on the reforms he paid lip service to. He has the dubious distinction of being loathed by both the NYPD rank and file and the protesters, who have repeatedly surrounded his mansion and chanted calls for his resignation.
New York is far from the only city contemplating dramatic reforms to its police force. Minneapolis’ City Council has vowed to defund its police department, voting unanimously on Friday to spend the next year in conversation with the community with the goal of “transforming” the police into a community safety force. Albuquerque, New Mexico has formed a new “public safety department” made up of unarmed social workers and de-escalation specialists who will respond to non-violent emergency calls. Calls for “defunding the police” have gone up in cities across the country, though there are heated debates on what exactly that implies and what is meant to replace the police.
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