In response to a wave of protests against police killings of Black people in 2014, the newly elected New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced an array of policing reforms focused on increasing community trust.
He reorganized the NYPD around “neighborhood policing”, assigning officers a neighborhood-level beat, increasing the number of police community meetings and appointing some cops as community liaisons. The mayor and city council also added 1,300 new officers. In 2017, the NYPD also rolled out a pilot of its body-camera program, one of the first department-wide programs in the country.
The reforms were a boon for the NYPD rank and file: the body cameras led to a 1% salary hike negotiated with the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the city’s largest police union, in 2016. And a 2017 contract between NYC and the union added another 2.25% pay increase for all NYPD police officers, called a “neighborhood policing differential”, whether or not they participated in the program. Overall, it meant a near 12% raise over five years.
After last year’s protests following the death of George Floyd, there has been increasing scrutiny across the country about widely promoted policing reforms that come with salary hikes for officers, largely thanks to police unions suggesting that reforms are onerous and that criticism has made their jobs dangerous. These reforms are advertised as ways to increase community trust, but the raises can be costly to cities – and their taxpayers – and there’s little evidence they are related to additional community work.
Advocates, who increasingly support redirecting police funds to other agencies, said it also demonstrates how reform, in the form of increased training and equipment, can be counterproductive. These critics propose instead redirecting law enforcement funds to community efforts outside the police force.
“It’s an example of the ways in which promises of reform or oversight just end up with the public spending more on policing,” said Michael Sisitzky, a senior policy counsel with NYCLU, told the Guardian.
New York City’s department of labor, which handles negotiations with police unions, said at the time of negotiations that the “neighborhood policing” pay bump was paid for by reducing pay for new hires. While it’s not clear that the raise had anything to do with neighborhood policing, it was separate from a 9.3% raise in the same contract, and the mayor insisted it would support his new approach to policing.
The union probably didn’t have much leverage to hold back neighborhood policing, which had been in place for years prior to the contract raise. But they could have potentially protested against body cameras by tying the city up with lawsuits, experts said. In fact, a 2015 PBA complaint filed with the Office of Collective Bargaining and obtained by the Guardian alleged that in rolling out its pilot body camera program the city violated collective bargaining laws. According to the complaint, the program “fundamentally alters the terms and conditions of employment of police officers by substantially modifying, among other things, their privacy, safety, duties, evaluation procedures, hours, wages and workload.” The complaint was dropped as part of negotiations over the 2017 contract.
The union has leverage in contract negotiations with the city for several reasons. It had been working with a lapsed contract for five years when they negotiated the 2017 contract. In New York state, under the Taylor law, if negotiators can’t come to terms on a new contract, the old contract is still in effect, including any provisions the city might want to change. “The union has time on its side because they can hold out and not sign on the contract,” said Daniel DiSalvo, a political science professor at City College of New York who studies labor unions.
And while it may seem intuitive that unions have their backs against the wall during periods of heightened protest, the opposite can be true. “The police are kind of in an advantage,” DiSalvo said. “Paradoxically, the hostility of the national environment can be leveraged by labor.”
The PBA, and police unions across the country, can use the heightened criticism of police to portray their jobs as thankless and increasingly dangerous, despite the fact that NYPD line-of-duty deaths have been trending down for decades. The PBA keeps a running toll on its website of attacks on police officers, including vehicle damage and online threats. In recent weeks, the PBA head, Pat Lynch, has blamed anti-police rhetoric for the death of a police officer in a hit-and-run as well as a spike in retirements.
“We see that any time there is a call for reform this urge to recast themselves as the underdog, people who face insurmountable challenges,” Sisitzky said.
Officials, meanwhile, argue the pay raises are mutually beneficial to the police and public. “The parties reached a successful agreement that provided for modest increased compensation in exchange for management’s right to use body cameras throughout the NYPD,” Robert Linn, the city’s chief labor negotiator at the time, told the Guardian. “I think there should be a model as to how to provide 21st-century policing.”
In Nassau county, Long Island, the local branch of the PBA is in negotiations after union members rejected a $3,000-a-year salary increase for officers who wear body-worn cameras. A final contract may include an even higher pay bump, despite opposition from activists. According to an analysis by Newsday, the $3,000 salary increase would add $5.7m to the county’s budget. The same analysis found purchasing the cameras would cost only $1.3m, and storing data would cost between $342,000 to $5.2m depending on the plan.
Frederick Brewington, a Long Island civil rights attorney who recently served on the county’s police reform taskforce, said: “Asking officers to be more accountable and to be better members of the society that they’re intending to service, that doesn’t mean you get paid more for doing the thing you swore you were going to do when you took the oath.”
Emily Kaufman, a social worker and organizer with the racial justice collective of Long Island United, said: “Police shouldn’t get paid to wear part of their uniform, this isn’t additional training, this isn’t a specialization, they don’t get trained to wear their badge.” Kaufman says she’s less angry at the union – whose job it is to fight for pay increases for their members – than county officials who go along with it with little protest.
In New York City, the future of the police budget depends on decisions being made in the next few months. Amid a 77% increase in shootings over the previous year – consistent with an uptick in violence across the country during the pandemic – De Blasio has signaled the budget will increase. The mayor also rolled out a policing plan that could be adopted by the next mayor, to be elected this fall. And all five of the city’s police union contracts have expired, so the cost of those reforms will also be the responsibility of the next mayor.
The Guardian contacted Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, the two leading candidates as of recent polling, for comment. Yang did not respond, but a spokesperson for Adams sent a statement saying that he would be pursuing his own reform plan as mayor with a focus on transparency and diversity. The statement did not include comment on officer raises or union negotiations and both Yang and Adams do not support defunding the police.
In a heated recent city council hearing the New York City police commissioner, Dermot Shea, argued that any cuts to the NYPD budget would lead to more crime. “Our neighborhood policing model of proven crime-fighting policing works when we have the necessary tools and resources,” Shea said. “When tools are taken away there are real-world consequences.”
But with no data provided by the mayor that neighborhood policing has helped the city, advocates are still wary.
“Any attempt to get more transparency around police practices has the potential to funnel more money and resources into these police agencies,” Sisitzky said. “Maybe the answer is not to focus on that type of reform, but rethink the scope and function of police departments and police officers.”
Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.
The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.
The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.
“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.
The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.
At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.
Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.
On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.
Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.
A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.
Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.
Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.
Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.
“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.
“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”
Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.
“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.
Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.
Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.
The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.