Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams spoke at a City Council hearing convened Monday to discuss the reduction of responsibilities of the NYPD, outlining several areas in which a community-oriented public safety approach would reduce law enforcement's role while promoting public safety. He has long advocated for a re-defining of public safety beyond simply policing-based solutions to every concern, while acknowledging the role that law enforcement does and should play in co-producing public safety.
"Whenever we are confronted with a problem of any sort—particularly if we are trying to figure out how to solve it— our solution very often is to throw police at it. It is unfair to the community and it is actually unfair to the police officers who aren’t equipped to solve every problem..." said Public Advocate Williams before the Committee on Public Safety. "I’d like to identify areas in which targeted and community-oriented approaches should be strengthened, while again understanding that our law enforcement has important roles to play."
Among the areas in which the Public Advocate identified as needing some public safety programs which are not simply based in policing and law enforcement are:
- Gun Violence
- Housing and Homelessness
- Mental Health
- Sex Work
The Public Advocate's full testimony as delivered is below.
TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS
TO THE CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC SAFETY
SEPTEMBER 27, 2021
Peace and blessings everyone. As mentioned, my name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Thank you Chair Adams for not only leading this hearing but for continuing to create the space for these discussions to happen. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak. I cannot overstate the importance of this conversation—the importance of always having this conversation as a focal point of any discussion around policing and public safety. As was mentioned, last year we saw people putting their voices in the street and I think the conversation often got too myopic. There is no conversation that is going to be meaningful about money and any reforms—which are needed, but by themselves will never get to where we want to get—unless we have a conversation about what public safety is and how we achieve public safety, with law enforcement as a partner, but not the only partner. Too often NYPD is equalized as public safety when that is not true.
I want to begin with what I always say and sometimes gets left out. Many of us who have this conversation, myself included, understand the critical role NYPD plays by providing acute law enforcement solutions to criminal situations. Just this morning we saw our police intervene in a mass shooting that prevented perhaps other people from getting shot. But what we want to do is make sure the shootings don’t occur in the first place. So we know that policing by itself cannot address all of the components that make up personal and community well-being. For too long, our City has simply equated public safety with policing. And not just our City, but our State and our Country.
Whenever we are confronted with a problem of any sort—particularly if we are trying to figure out how to solve it— our solution very often is to throw police at it. It is unfair to the community and it is actually unfair to the police officers who aren’t equipped to solve every problem. We see this dynamic play out in our budget, which annually allocates almost $11 billion to the NYPD—when including centrally allocated costs—despite other essential services consistently falling victim to austerity cuts. This excessive emphasis on policing has consequences. Societal issues often worsen as their root causes go ignored. Communities of more color are often subjected to hyper-surveillance that increases the likelihood of discriminatory policing, privacy violations, and overuses of force. And more people are funneled into the carceral system, which in turn creates problems like the current humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island.
I am grateful that this Committee has convened to discuss the reduction of responsibilities of the NYPD. With the aim of advancing this conversation, I’d like to identify areas in which targeted and community-oriented approaches should be strengthened. While again understanding that our law enforcement has important roles to play.
Mayor's Office of Gun Violence Prevention—which includes, but is not solely, the Crisis Management System (CMS)—is one of the City’s most useful resources in preventing shootings before they happen. However, their impact is currently limited by fiscal constraints. The upcoming City budget should dramatically increase funding for the Mayor's Office of Gun Violence Prevention—including the programs that are there including CMS—so that we can establish programs in new sites, expand existing catchment areas, hire more staff and minimize employee turnover, and overlay new programs like the Advance Peace model. We have also seen the important roles that programs like Summer Youth jobs play as a whole and when targeted to identify the people who most need them.
The NYPD currently assigns over 5,000 School Safety Agents and almost 200 uniformed NYPD Officers to New York City schools who are empowered to detain, arrest, and issue court summonses to students and are often the first point of contact when there is an issue. These punitive approaches to disciplining children—predominantly those of more color, even when looking at the same behaviors in students that are not of more color—has created an atmosphere of fear in school hallways that is not conducive to learning and creates a pipeline to the criminal justice system. We have to work on a structure that begins to replace the over-reliance of police presence and infrastructure with a healing-centered and restorative justice framework that would keep students physically safe by supporting them to build positive relationships and resolve conflict, and address many of the social and emotional stressors that result in students acting out. The next budget should very much consider continuing to increase the number of school counselors, social workers, and psychologists. I don’t want my words to be misconstrued, we cannot allow 5,000 school safety agents, including mostly women of more color, to be fired in this process.
Homelessness and Housing
Being homeless is not a crime. Yet, instead of providing targeted support that addresses the roots of the problem, the City and State have increased the roles of the NYPD and the MTA Police in its strategies to address homelessness in recent years. This expansion of police into the social services sector is outside of these agencies’ missions to enforce the law. Law enforcement agencies should be removed from providing primary homeless services. This includes ending punitive sweeps and the harmful subway diversion program. Moving forward, our focus must be on providing permanent housing solutions and supportive services.
Each year, 911 receives nearly 200,000 emergency calls involving individuals in mental health crises. The City must do more to prevent these crises from occurring by strengthening local community based mental health infrastructure, especially in communities of color and building out infrastructure to begin with. For when crises occur, we must implement a true citywide non-police response system in order to improve services and minimize hospitalization and justice involvement. The current B-HEARD program is severely insufficient in achieving this goal and should be overhauled in favor of a system that includes a dedicated 9-8-8 hotline; centers social workers, mental health peers, and EMS as first responders; and minimizes NYPD initial involvement. In this aim, I encourage the Council to pass our Office’s bill, Int. 2222 and to continue to make progress on Int. 2210 (Ayala), including addressing issues in bill language raised in the Committee on Mental Health’s hearing in April of this year.
The tragic continuation of traffic violence deaths demonstrates that the police-centered approach to street safety is not working how we want it. City should build on the passage of Int. 2224 (Rodríguez) by fully transferring traffic enforcement responsibilities from the NYPD to the DOT, which held these responsibilities until Mayor Giuliani shifted them to the NYPD in 1996. We must be mindful of these workers, their pay and how they feel when doing the job and think about their safety as well when we do this.
Our Office also supports ending the City’s punitive approach to public transit fare evasion. This approach does not make public transportation safer—it simply criminalizes predominantly low income New Yorkers of more color. It also keeps resources of police that we have in the wrong spaces. Instead of walking around the train, train’s platform, or train stations, they are focused on people hopping the train. The City should instead double spending on Fair Fares so that it covers 100% of fare costs for the lowest income New Yorkers. This would significantly minimize fair evasion, reduce policing costs, and deliver positive economic impacts. It would also prevent the incessant calls for police in the train station when we haven’t really assessed where the police are right now.
The City must move towards a public health centered approach to sex work. Our Office supports ending the NYPD’s Vice unit—which lacks both accountability and even more importantly, effectiveness—and decriminalizing sex work. The District Attorneys should begin to consider refusing many of the cases before them. Our Office additionally calls for the City to fund resources that sex workers need to engage in their work safely including access to rapid STD testing and individual-centered economic and employment services.
The NYPD’s use of technology must be fully transparent, non-discriminatory, respectful of privacy rights, and limited to necessary use. The recent release of reports related to the POST Act demonstrate that the NYPD has amassed a military-grade arsenal of surveillance technology that fails to meet these criteria. New York City should mimic cities like Seattle and Oakland by requiring the City Council to approve police technology purchases. Our Office has encouraged the Racial Justice Commission to allow the public to vote on this measure as a ballot question.
NYPD must cease all collaborations with ICE. It is greatly concerning that the NYPD has confirmed that ICE agents provided security for police precincts during protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. This collaboration occurred in violation of New York City’s own Sanctuary City status without any transparency to the public or the City Council. The NYPD has also supported ICE in deportation operations including the attempted deportation of Ravi Ragbir, which I was involved in. These actions must be investigated fully by the Office of the Inspector General and those responsible must be held accountable. Additional oversight measures must be put in place to ensure that the NYPD does not repeat rogue collaborations of this sort again.
Thank you so much for your consideration, for your time, and more importantly for this very important conversation with everyone at the table trying to figure out how we can best provide public safety for all New Yorkers in a way that is respectful for all New Yorkers. And I’ll just add that many of these services that we point out, even police officers themselves, when you speak to them, don’t want to be responding to all of them, because they also know that they don’t have the means to fix them.