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Examining Where Police Reform Efforts Stand In Chicago, New York And Seattle

NOEL KING, HOST:

Negotiations in Congress to reform policing in the U.S. collapsed last week. Lawmakers disagree about how to navigate rising violent crime rates in some areas and how to address police brutality. I talked to NPR correspondents Cheryl Corley in Chicago, Jasmine Garsd in New York and Martin Kaste in Seattle about where reform efforts stand in those cities.

So activists have been calling for governments to defund the police. And I want to ask each of you, did that happen where you are?

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Well, it didn't happen in Chicago. In fact, it's really just the opposite here, with nearly $2 billion designated for police spending next year.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Yeah, same in New York. I think a lot of New Yorkers might be surprised to find out, not only did NYPD's budget not get cut, it actually got a boost for fiscal year 2022. It's $10.4 billion, and that's up from 2020.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is Martin here. And I've been covering Minneapolis a lot, of course, where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer last year, which kicked off a summer of protests and this movement, which is now culminating in Minneapolis in a ballot question this fall. After some legal twists and turns, residents in Minneapolis are going to be voting on an amendment to the city charter which would abolish the current police department and replace it with a department of public safety.

KING: How would the department of public safety be different from the Minneapolis Police Department?

KASTE: Well, the details are being left to city officials if and when this passes. Supporters foresee a department that would take sort of a public health approach, trying to use more civilians to address root causes of crime. The city's already been experimenting with some of this approach in parallel to the police department. But really, what this amendment would do if it passes is do sort of an institutional reset of policing itself in the city. It would get rid of the office of police chief, and it would shift more power over policing away from the mayor to the city council.

KING: No police chief - that's really interesting. If that passes, do you know how many police officers Minneapolis would be left with?

KASTE: We don't. That's a big issue. The ballot question eliminates - the city charter currently has a minimum number of officers per capita. And this change would allow for officers to be hired again by the new department of public safety. But whether it will or how many it will hire is to be determined. And the practical reality is that Minneapolis is already hemorrhaging officers. There's been a real exodus - at least 200 officers since before the protests, and we're seeing a similar-sized exodus in other cities that also had intense protests last year. Seattle is a good example. There, the city's police department has lost so many officers that there's a $15 million surplus in just unpaid salaries for cops, and the department says it's so short-staffed right now it doesn't have enough officers to respond to some calls.

GARSD: Yeah. And if I can step in here - this is Jasmine in New York - New York has seen the same exact phenomenon, a decrease - a marked decrease in uniformed officers from 2019. And a good amount of that is retirements, people that are leaving the force.

KING: And then, Cheryl, you've been reporting the same thing in Chicago. The number of police officers in that city is also down. How has that worked there? And I ask about Chicago in particular because the city's mayor is on record saying this was a very bad summer for homicides.

CORLEY: Yeah. The mayor calls it brutal, brutal summer. And you know, like much of the country, homicides went up here, including some very tragic, fatal shootings of children under the age of 15, also a Chicago police officer. So, you know, even though there's been some support for defunding the police, there has been less of a push here than in other parts of the country. And so instead, what we've seen is an increase in police spending and police officers who've been working without a contract now for several years now have one with a retroactive pay raise. There was some opposition from city council members who just thought the contract didn't go far enough when it came to reforms, though.

KING: Have there been any changes, any real changes?

CORLEY: You know - well, when it comes to police behavior or police misconduct, there was one big change that reformers had sought for years, and it allows anyone who wants to file a misconduct complaint against an officer to be able to do that anonymously. You know, of course, one of the most crucial issues here, though, is how to combat the, really, epidemic of shooting that occurs in some neighborhoods. You know, Martin talked about a public health approach, and there's a similar approach here. One example - the city has focused on 15 police beats to narrow what it calls a safety gap. In some neighborhoods, residents are 42 times more likely to be shot than in other areas.

KING: And so what are the police doing in those 15 neighborhoods?

CORLEY: Well, the city is doing what it calls taking a wraparound approach. They flood most violent areas with more resources, not just violence interrupter programs where people reach out to stop any disagreement with gangs, but help with housing and jobs and health to attack what Lightfoot and others say are the root causes of violence, like poverty and unemployment, problems that are considered factors in, in part, for a big increase in some of the carjackings that have occurred here, particularly by young people. The city calls it an all-hands-on-deck approach and says there's been some progress. There are critics, however, who say Lightfoot's claim that the city is transforming the police department just isn't happening and that there's little change in actual policing, particularly in Black and brown communities.

KING: OK. Jasmine, let me ask you about something that both Martin and Cheryl mentioned, which is cities asking themselves the question whether police should be deployed in a case where someone is having a mental health crisis. Is New York City asking itself that question, too?

GARSD: Absolutely. I think a lot of cities nationwide are having this conversation. Are there certain things that it is not appropriate for the police to be intervening in? And New York City has piloted a program in Harlem where 911 emergency responders can deploy mental health and social workers instead of the police. This kind of approach was actually implemented in the '80s in Oregon, and early data shows that it has been successful. There are similar programs piloted recently in cities like Rochester in New York and Denver. The Bay Area in California also has fledgling programs.

Now, activists in New York City who I've spoken to have told me that they see this program as an only moderate success because they say police often is still being deployed to incidents involving mental health crises. And they'd like to see more resources put into prevention, addressing issues like mental health conditions before they reach that tipping point where a 911 responder has to figure out whether or not to deploy the police.

KING: Have you had an opportunity yourself to look into some of these alternatives to traditional policing? Have you seen how it sort of looks on the ground?

GARSD: Yeah. Over the summer, I spent a lot of time in communities that are sandwiched between these two realities, which is really deteriorated relations with the NYPD, a sense that this is a police force that consistently targets them - and on the other hand, a rise in shootings and in crime, just like Martin and Cheryl mentioned. One alternative that cities nationwide are investing in is violence interrupter programs, which is - it's community members, many of whom themselves used to be involved in criminal activity, going into their communities and diffusing tensions, brokering truces. And here in New York, the mayor has set aside $22 million to expand these types of programs next year. Now, do these programs work? They've been around since the '80s. They started in Chicago, and there's mixed evidence. There's been positive outcomes, but criminologists have also expressed concerns about politicians touting them as this cure-all, this elixir to solve violence.

KING: OK. We started this conversation by talking about the call to defund the police. In November, Minneapolis will vote on the future of its police department. And Martin, I wonder, in your mind, is this the defunding that people were calling for last year? Is this what folks wanted to see happen?

KASTE: Well, you know, I think that's the big question in Minneapolis. What is this vote about? As violent crime surged last year, there was sort of a perception of the police retreating or being absent and opening up a space for outlaw behaviors such as street racing and shootings. And that term, defund, slowly became politically toxic to the point now where I think the activist groups who are supporting this ballot question insist that it is not about defunding. They object to that word. They say this is more about reimagining police.

And you can see why they would say that when you look at polling. There was a recent Minnesota poll of voters in Minneapolis that showed that there is a slight majority for this ballot question, which would end the current police department. But at the same time, people in that same poll, the majority, said they did not want to see fewer police. Black respondents especially said that. So I think we see this tension. People seem to want reform, but they also want policing. And I think this vote, like much of the debate around the country, is about whether it's possible to have both.

KING: OK. NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle, Jasmine Garsd in New York and Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Thank you all for taking the time. We appreciate it.

CORLEY: Welcome.

KASTE: My pleasure.

GARSD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "SPY BOY/FLAG BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.