By Yehudah Webster
May 14, 2021

Read the full opinion piece in the New York Daily News

Over the weekend, there was a tragic shooting in Times Square that injured multiple people, including a child. Almost immediately after it occurred, certain politicians held up the shooting as an example of why we need to continue treating the NYPD’s budget as sacrosanct. But this horrible event demonstrates the opposite.

Times Square is one of the most heavily surveilled and policed places in New York City. And yet the NYPD did not prevent, let alone apprehend the shooter. If all of Times Square’s surveillance cameras, armed police officers, and an actual NYPD station were not enough to prevent a shooting, what would do it? Another few hundred cameras? A few dozen more cops with even bigger guns? A robot dog?

At a certain point, we must ask ourselves why, if our primary solution to a problem proves inadequate over and over again, we continue to invest in it. If all the police and surveillance cameras in Times Square were not enough to stop a shooting, why are we to believe more police will prevent violence in already over-policed neighborhoods — ones that are far more frequent sites of shootings than Times Square? In fact, a comprehensive meta-analysis of crime data conducted by the University of Alaska showed that “...crime rates are rarely associated with increases in police force size, and when changes are found they are small.” This study confirms what we already know — that there is no specific relationship between police force size and crime.

They are questions anyone serious about combating violence in our city must ask. But instead, we have once again heard the reflexive call for bolstering the NYPD, a department, which, as journalist Talia Lavin recently pointed out, has a higher budget than the nation of Kyrgyzstan’s entire GDP.

Most of these calls to defend the NYPD’s budget likely come from people with the same motivations we have, because most of us want the same things for our city: for it to be safe, accessible, and affordable; for it to be a place where people from all backgrounds and traditions live side-by-side, making New York City the unique place it is. What we differ on is the solution.

The drumbeat of law-and-order as a solution to crime has been repeated for so many years, it’s understandable that this is the solution many people concerned about safety instinctively reach for. We have not been given the chance to see an alternative in action at scale. And that’s because our city and its leaders have chosen not to fund alternatives used by anti-violence practitioners and community organizers on the local level.

We know that more policing does not necessarily mean less violence — just more arrests. And these arrests are often themselves violent, perpetuating the cycle. Non-violent community-based alternatives, while less flashy than uniformed officers and high-profile arrests, have the benefit of interrupting that cycle.

We know that youth employment programs, for example, have proven immensely successful at reducing violence. Research from Chicago and New York shows young people are less likely to be involved in violent incidents and arrested following placement in meaningful employment experiences. Anger management and mental health counseling, and mentorship opportunities have proven key as well. Cure Violence programs such as LIFE Camp resulted in a 10% reduction in violence across New York City. Instead of investing in and expanding NYPD youth initiatives and policing strategies, we should redirect those funds to ensure every young person who is eligible can receive a placement in the Summer Youth Employment Program and extend the opportunities throughout the year.

It’s no mystery why these programs work: Most people do not want to engage in violence or participate in activities that put them at higher risk for experiencing it. When given the alternative, young people take it.

Our city faces a similar choice. The question remains: With alternatives to violence in front of us, will we take them?

Webster is a community organizer at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), member organization of Communities United for Police Reform.