Rethinking the role of police in society

Avani Khorana , Staff Writer

Just hours after Frank James opened fire in a subway car full of people on their morning commute through Sunset Park, New York City Mayor Eric Adams pledged to double the number of police officers patrolling the city’s subway system. However, as you have likely seen if you take the subway, stations are already brimming with police — not that it made much of a difference last Tuesday morning. 

Since Adams’ inauguration in January, he has sent nearly 10% of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) 36,000 officers underground, yet they were still unable to prevent or reduce the consequences of the attack nor did they apprehend James at the scene. Adams’ response adheres to a recognizable pattern where an authority figure uses a tragedy as an excuse to expand police resources. But the NYPD’s inefficiency this past Tuesday begs the question: is increasing police presence really the path to public safety?

There is a difference between true public safety and the public’s perception of safety. As of the start of April, nearly 600 transit crimes have been reported, a 65% increase from the same time last year. The visual presence of police in NYC subways did not prevent the Brooklyn shooting or a number of other recent violent incidents. 

Officers at the attack last Tuesday were unable to use their radios due to a malfunction and cameras in the station were down for a similar reason — but why? Why, with the NYPD’s $10.4 billion budget, can we not allocate funds to put functioning and effective safety measures in place? Why is the main focus of subway policing on fare evasion when people are robbed, assaulted, harassed, and killed on the train and at stations all the time?

James eluded police for 31 hours before he was arrested in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood I frequent. Anyone who spends time in that area can attest to the strong police presence, yet it was not a police officer who found James. While it is unclear whether nearby New Yorkers, James himself, or both are responsible for the tip that led to his arrest, we can be certain that the police played only a small role in the success of the search.

Last Tuesday’s shooting proves that increasing police numbers and their range of operation does not equate to greater public safety or fewer crimes. Rather, it can hurt the most vulnerable. This past summer, I watched as police imposed a curfew on Tompkins Square Park — mere steps from where James was found — and kicked out homeless people living there in encampments. This action was under former Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s administration; however, just two weeks ago, Adams ordered officers to clear another encampment near the park dubbed “Anarchy Row” where a number of homeless people have sought refuge.

In addition to increasing police presence in subways, Adams has made police-led sweeps of homeless encampments across the city a focal point of his tough-on-crime platform. The justification behind these sweeps is the expectation that homeless people will enter shelters, but they are often unsafe and widely thought of as an extension of the prison system. Shelters are not a permanent nor stable solution; viewing them as one and using police force to intimidate homeless people does more harm than good.

Politicians such as Adams seem to have the mindset that “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” Police are helpful and effective in certain situations, but that does not mean they are the answer all the time.

I am a firm believer in defunding the police as funneling endless resources into law enforcement instead of education, affordable housing, and accessible healthcare only perpetuates harm. This is not to say that crime will disappear if we divert funds from the police to social programs, but to say that rather than solely reducing the harms of policing, we must rethink the police’s role in society. 

As of now, the NYPD responds to mental health crises, shootings, robberies, domestic violence cases, and anything else that people call 911 for and then some. This scope is so much more than any one organization can, or should, deal with.

To address social issues at their root, we need to reinvest in communities rather than in an institution that further oppresses them. Law enforcement is not meant to act as judge, jury, and executioner; police should promote public safety by working with communities, not enforcing against them. When we see such a persistence of police brutality, negligence, and overall corruption, I have to wonder how more money and more uniformed bodies is a solution to unrest.

Adams’ police-focused policy presents a tough-on-crime front, but it has not proven to be an effective solution. Instead of rooting out the problem — why people are unable to find and afford housing; how the stigma around mental health prevents us from helping those struggling with it; how criminalizing poverty only worsens it — we are stuck in an endless loop of violence and fear. The media’s persistent narrative of a city spiraling into crime and disorder can be disconcerting, but there is another approach, should we choose to seek it out.

The majority upper-class background of Horace Mann students, including myself, insulates us from crime and gives us an internalized, idealistic relationship between police and public safety that does not reflect reality. Law enforcement seems to hold a monopoly on public safety, but there is never one singular solution for any societal failure — we need to unlearn these beliefs about policing and reimagine other pathways towards well-being. Time and time again, we are failed by a system that defaults to the police. Establishing accessible and effective mental health, housing, education, and rehabilitation services is the key to creating safe, stable, and thriving communities.

The main constraint to changing the way we think about police is a lack of awareness. Though most of us cannot vote for public officials to turn this tide, educating ourselves and others by reading stories and doing research is just as powerful. It is imperative that we call for change before we dig ourselves into a hole we cannot climb out of.