A Retired NYPD Officer’s Response to “Defund Police”

By Deputy Inspector Corey Pegues (Ret.)

The killing of George Floyd has brought national attention to the rallying cry to “defund the police.” As a retired Deputy Inspector with the NYPD, I agree it is time to re-fund our communities. Because our city does not adequately invest in social services and community-based resources, police are overloaded and forced to intervene in quality of life issues, making us less effective at our jobs. Our city should remove many responsibilities from the police’s plate and reallocate funds to nonpolice services.

As a former police commander in East Flatbush who grew up in a rough part of Queens, it breaks my heart to see victims of gun violence. We worked hard to investigate every homicide, but I realized so much more could be done to prevent homicides. I helped start the God Squad program, which brings ministers out into the street to speak with young men involved in gang violence, with the aim of stopping killings before they occur.

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We need to reinvest in programs that go further to reach these young people and prevent crime before it starts. Credible messengers are former gang members who serve their communities by mentoring high-risk youth to change violent behavior. These men can connect with the most challenging of youth and change their behaviors towards violence. Our city needs to invest in credible messengers to prevent violence just as we invest in police to investigate violence.

We also need to prevent crime by investing in mental health, instead of waiting for a mental health emergency and calling on police to respond. When we over rely on police, we reach the point we’re at today, when people with serious mental illness constitute a sixth of the Rikers Island Jail population. A recent study also found 25 to 50% of fatal officer-involved shootings involved someone with a severe mental illness. By investing in diagnosis, treatment, and proactive check-ins with high-risk individuals, we can prevent mental health crises from occurring in the first place.

We can respond to many mental illness-related calls with mental health specialists and social workers instead of armed police. In Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS program has been handling mental health 911 calls for over 20 years. CAHOOTS’s unarmed first responders are trained to de-escalate mental health crises and respond to suicide attempts and drug overdoses. Sending unarmed first responders avoids police making unnecessary arrests and using force, which break down the community’s trust in us.

Instead of relying on police officers, our schools need to rely on experts trained to create long-term change for youth. The current NYC budget proposal for next year would fund more school police and safety agents than school counselors, social workers, and psychologists combined. To prevent conflict, we need more experts in trauma and cognitive behavioral therapy and less focus on police. City schools are already benefiting from restorative justice programs in which a trained mediator ensures that a student recognizes the harm he or she caused and takes responsibility for repair. The restorative process is more challenging for the student than traditional punishment, it reduces recidivism, and it brings greater satisfaction for victims. It allows schools to settle conflicts internally, without relying on law enforcement.

Our city needs to bring the budget back in balance. The police budget has increased by $1 billion since 2014. Our leaders cannot react to COVID-19 by slashing budgets in social services and paying police overtime for us to clean up the mess.

New York City must stop relying on police officers to provide short term band-aids. We can more effectively prevent crime by expanding our view of public safety experts to include social workers, counselors, and outreach workers. By narrowing police responsibilities, we can earn back public trust and reduce serious crime.

Deputy Inspector Corey Pegues (Ret.) served for 21 years with the New York Police Department after fourteen years with the US Army. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.

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