Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and retired FBI supervisory special agent. He is also an adjunct assistant professor and doctoral candidate at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, and a member of the board of directors at the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesAGagliano. The views expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
As the police officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck faces charges of second degree murder and manslaughter, a national debate on policing continues to take center stage. Protests around the country led to dangerous calls to “defund the police” and “abolish the police,” and the New York City Council voted last month to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion annual budget for the 2020 fiscal year. The department, which oversees almost 36,000 officers, now suffers a drastic budget-reduction close to 17%. In Minneapolis, the city council proposed a plan to replace the police department and invest in community-based public safety programs, although the move has been blocked from the ballot in a recent vote. And in Seattle, elected officials have started chipping away at their police department – death by a thousand budget cuts. The once unthinkable now threatens to become a reality across the nation.
Somewhere along the way to righteous demands for police reform, we have elected to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Proactive policing strategies, which were adopted more than three decades ago, have come under knee-jerk assault, though studies have provided evidence they can prevent or reduce crime. Detractors will argue that correlation does not necessarily equate to causation, and while other factors may have contributed to change, my experience in the field highlighted the impact these measures can have.
Over the course of a 25-year law enforcement career mostly served in New York, I investigated violent crime as a member of two FBI-NYPD task forces between 1995 and 2003, and assembled and led an upstate New York federal safe streets task force in 2008 that targeted violent street gangs and drug trafficking organizations in New York’s “most dangerous city.”
It was here where I learned that street crime has its own opportunistic rhythms tethered to the perceived ambivalence or permissiveness of the state. While some policing tactics like Stop, Question and Frisk have been subject to controversy, I witnessed the historic crime reduction in New York City that began in the 1990s, when criminals were put on notice that even minor infractions would be policed and law enforcement was widely credited with taking back the streets and saving countless lives.
Yet, the years post-Ferguson have ushered in epochal changes in how we view law enforcement.
The natural inclination of protest movements can result in a pendulum swing. The gathering momentum initiated by organizations reacting to events tends to swing the pendulum far past its tendency to return to rest at the center. We, as sober adults, must resist this inertia.
Some current police reform activists have pivoted from criticizing the system to aiming their invective squarely at cops – isolating the few in order to smear the whole. This runs counter to their platform, which seeks equal justice under the law and professes to shine a light on historical injustices.
However, the radical views of many activists may not be consistent with those of Black Americans. A recent Gallup poll found a whopping 81% of Black Americans want a police presence that either maintains the same amount of time (61%) – or more time (20%) – in their neighborhoods. You wouldn’t know that amidst all the noise.
It’s alarming that calls to defund or abolish the police have become increasingly popular at a time when shootings and killings are on the rise in many major cities. Today, New York City is experiencing a perilous surge in gunplay across the five boroughs. Eight months into 2020 and the NYPD has registered 777 shootings – with more victims and incidents this year than during the entirety of 2019, according to an analysis by the New York Post.
The New York Times recently reported that homicide rates in 64 large American cities were increasing over the first three months of 2020 when compared to previous years. And after a brief pause, seemingly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the murder rate began ticking up again in May, with New York City experiencing an alarming increase in homicides for the first six months of 2020. The New York Post ran this grim headline on August 9: “Number of NYC shootings in 2020 close to totals for same period in past two years combined.”
And yet it wasn’t that long ago that then-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly proudly touted the FBI’s 2004 Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which supported their claim that New York was the “safest big city in America.” Between 2001 and 2004, New York City was responsible for 20% of the total crime decline in the nation, according to analysis from the magazine Government Technology. While UCR is flawed – reporting is voluntary, among other things – and the FBI warns against ranking, it is the best data available to draw conclusions.
Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, ran his 2013 campaign specifically targeting proactive policing methodologies – like Stop, Question and Frisk. The Supreme Court has upheld the practice’s constitutionality, despite criticism of racially discriminatory outcomes.
Progressives cheered the plummeting rates of SQ&F under de Blasio. The practice was designed to interdict illegally-possessed handguns before a violent crime could be committed, and a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report in 2017 found that the use of this tactic, when targeting places with violent or serious gun crimes, and focusing on high-risk repeat offenders, consistently led to short-term crime reduction.
The hard truth is that homicides disproportionately and acutely impact communities of color. In 2016, President Obama acknowledged that “[t]he single greatest cause of death for young black men between the ages of 18 and 35 is homicide.” This devastating plague won’t be mitigated by dismissing as “discriminatory” the very proactive policing that these neighborhoods desperately require.
And yet, further emboldened by a discredited district court judge’s ruling that the NYPD’s implementation of SQ&F was flawed and biased, de Blasio has leveraged the current protests to take even bolder action – electing to disband the NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime unit in mid-June. Even de Blasio had once referred to the unit as “elite.” Their mission was to recover illegal guns from the streets of New York before they could be used in the commission of a crime. Hizzoner’s ‘wokeness’ has likely contributed to a 130% increase in shootings when compared to June of last year.
I am old enough to recall arriving in New York City as a freshly-minted FBI agent the year following New York City’s bloodiest on record, 1990, when 2,262 murders were recorded and law enforcement professionals felt that there was no way to reverse it.
Having had this experience, I fear for what is to come. In Portland, protesters and federal officers have clashed in front of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. Even after federal forces were pulled back, protestors have attempted to barricade the front doors of a police precinct and start a fire with people inside. Mayor Ted Wheeler condemned the move and said, “When you commit arson with an accelerant in an attempt to burn down a building that is occupied by people who you have intentionally trapped inside, you are not demonstrating, you are attempting to commit murder.”
As reported in The Oregonian, the city just recorded its highest number of killings in a single month in more than three decades. And according to Police Chief Chuck Lovell, the 34-member Gun Violence Reduction Team was disbanded on July 1 at the behest of the city council. It was specifically targeted for defunding, according to The Oregonian’s reporting, because it was one of the “police units that have targeted a disproportionate number of black people in traffic stops.”
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And in Chicago, Sunday night and early Monday morning saw rampant looting and riots after police shot a suspect who they say fired a gun at them, striking an officer. Looters targeted stores, banks, and even destroyed a Tesla dealership on the city’s Magnificent Mile. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot described it as, “This was straight up felony criminal conduct.”
Recent crime data – which shows sharp increases in shootings or killings in cities like New York, Chicago and Portland – should serve as an ominous warning. Stigmatizing successful enforcement methodologies and demonizing the policing profession isn’t the solution we are seeking. Defunding police budgets serves to critically impact the very underserved communities that need them most.
We must resist the dangerous momentum of the pendulum’s swing.