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A $45 Million Jobs Program for City Residents

Jobs are the number one issue in Syracuse. Good jobs, ones that pay well, ones that don’t require unnecessary credentials, jobs that people can get to whether or not they own a car.

In a real way, the best thing that City Hall could do for the City of Syracuse would be to run a massive jobs program.

The bitter irony is that City Hall does run an enormous jobs program, but it doesn’t do a thing for people living in the City. Every year the Syracuse Police Department spends $45 million dollars to pay more than 400 police officers a generous salary, substantial overtime, and good benefits, and 95% of the people who receive that municipal largesse live in the suburbs.

That money—about a fifth of the municipal budget—should go to employing City residents instead.

That could mean hiring City residents to work in the SPD, but City Hall has been trying to do that for years, and they’ve got nothing to show for it. State law bans City Hall from requiring police officers to live in the City, and persuasion hasn’t worked either. On the one hand, the SPD built such an awful reputation that a lot of people don’t want to work for them. On the other, the sick culture at SPD rejects the City residents who do actually try to become cops.

Much easier would be to take a bunch of money away from the police, eliminate a bunch of police officer positions, and create new positions in other departments to do a lot of the same work—work that shouldn’t ever have been left up to armed officers in the first place. Police are City Hall’s highest paid employees—often making more than $100,000 with overtime—so for each officer fired, City Hall could hire multiple City residents at a salary of $56,000 (the County’s median household income). And since these wouldn’t be police officer positions, City Hall could restrict its hiring to City residents just as it does with civil engineers, paralegals, mechanics, and just about every other position on the municipal payroll. Call them Public Safety Officers, give them official uniforms, and have them report to the Parking Violations Bureau.

Instead of sending cops to stand around at street fairs, hire people from the neighborhood to keep an eye on things. Instead of paying out $750,000 in overtime to have police follow protesters around, pay City residents to do that same work. Instead of having cops sit in their cars looking for Black drivers to harass, hire people to watch the intersections in their own neighborhoods and ticket people for running the stop sign.

A third of the City is poor. People need work. City Hall has the money and the need to employ a lot of them, but instead it’s sending its money out to Camillus and Salina and Manlius. Enough. Fire those suburban police officers and hire City residents to do the same work.

Pools, Police, and Priorities

It is such good news that the pools will open up, that children and families will be able to cool down during this historically hot summer, that kids are getting at least one thing that they’re asking for.

But it is ridiculous that it took a GoFundMe to make it happen. After City Hall announced that they were closing all the pools for lack of money, they found the funds to open two, and then went out to the community to ask for $100,000 to open two more.

And Syracuse responded because this town is full of good people, so it worked out.

But how about at the same time that City Hall was passing the hat so it could open two pools (and at the same time that people are out in the streets calling to defund the police), the Mayor was also talking about increasing SPD’s budget?

City Halls pleads poverty whenever people ask for better municipal services. And they’ve got a valid point—the whole system of taxation, transportation, and education in CNY is set up to rob Syracuse of money so that the suburbs can thrive. City Hall does need more support to provide all the services that the community needs.

But it’s also true that even in 2020, in the middle of a fiscal crisis, City Hall is planning to spend about $250 million dollars, $50 million of that on police, and $6.5 million of that on overtime.

Yusuf Abdul-Qadir shows how much of City Hall’s budget goes to police and how little goes to parks and youth programs

A budget is a moral document. There isn’t enough money to pay for everything Syracuse needs, so City Hall has to make decisions about what matters most. It’s easy to see what City Hall prioritizes by looking at what makes it into the budget and what doesn’t.

So you look at City Hall’s budget, and it’s clear that police are a really big priority, but pools are not. There’s no ‘they’re both important’ there’s no “investing in police and redirecting money to community initiatives shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.” Police are the biggest thing in the budget, and pools aren’t even halfway in it at all. Police are the priority, and pools are not.

And that’s a problem, because it means that City Hall’s priorities are not in line with the community’s. City Hall asked people to pay a voluntary tax in the middle of a recession, and the community came up with $100,000 to open up the pools. So you can bet that if the community was in control of the municipal budget, pools would have been in it, and maybe SPD would only have $6.4 million to spend on overtime.

That’s what #DefundPolice really means. It’s not about retribution, it’s not about cutting the police budget just to put cops in a hard spot. It’s about the fact that the City has higher priorities than the SPD. It’s about how when City Hall spends a fifth of the public money on armed officers and incarceration, it necessarily neglects other programs and services that would do more to make the community safer. It’s about how giving kids a safe place to cool off in a historically hot summer is a genuine public service—a service that makes Syracuse safer by making it happier. Let’s make that a priority.

Why Do We Need This Many Police?

Syracuse needs a new idea of public safety—a new paradigm that sends healthcare and social workers to deal with health and social issues. A new paradigm that significantly reduces the number of interactions that police officers have with the public and significantly reduces the number of police officers employed by City Hall.

New ideas threaten those who benefit from the broken status quo, and so a lot of people have responded to this new idea by saying that it’s impractical—that Syracuse needs 400+ police officers and that those officers need to be involved in every traffic stop, overdose, housing failure, and mental health crisis in the City.

Here’s PBA president Jeff Piedmonte giving a version of the argument:

“One of the things they bring up is have mental health people to respond to calls, which would be great,” said Piedmonte. “But, if a mental health person goes to help somebody and then they pull a gun or knife on them, what are they supposed to do?”

Let’s not be coy about what he’s saying. A healthcare worker would have many options to deal with this potential but not obviously common situation. They could de-escalate, they could flee, they could call and request assistance from an armed officer.

What a healthcare worker could not do—and what Jeff Piedmonte is suggesting a police officer would do—is shoot the patient. That’s the final answer you’ll get from people who think Syracuse needs enough armed officers to respond to every 911 call, who think that public safety needs to be in the hands of police officers rather than social workers—cops can kill.

And just think about what it means if that’s what defines police. It means that police officers are themselves a threat to every single person with whom they interact. Jeff Piedmonte created a hypothetical situation with almost no detail, just that there’s a mentally ill person and a healthcare professional, and his first thought was ‘might have to shoot them.’ I was in boy scouts, and a police officer came to talk to the troop—he told us that he was always looking out for the threat of an attack, constantly evaluating how he would fight back, and he explained exactly how he would have used the furniture in the room to incapacitate us children.

There may be a place for that kind of neurosis, but it isn’t in an organization in charge of public safety. When armed men roam City streets thinking that every person they encounter might be a threat, that makes Syracuse less safe. It’s what led SPD officer Chris Buske to beat Shaolin Moore in the street—Buske imagined that Moore might have had a weapon that didn’t exist. He imagined that because he was afraid of Syracuse and the people who live in it. That fear warped his understanding of reality and so he reacted to Moore’s black skin exactly the way that Jeff Piedmonte says he should have—with unjustified violence.

After decades of police abuse, people are in the streets asking if there isn’t a better way to secure public safety in Syracuse. That’s a threat to the SPD, to their privileged positions of power and their paychecks padded with fraudulent overtime, so you can bet that Jeff Piedmonte is going to come up with some reason that Syracuse really does need the SPD, as it is currently constituted, to keep the City safe.

But really listen to what he’s arguing, take seriously what he’s saying. He’s not saying that SPD would be better than healthcare professionals at caring for a mentally ill person, or that SPD would be better than social workers at finding shelter for an unhoused person. He’s saying that police officers are the only municipal employees who will shoot people.

If that’s not an argument to defund the police, I don’t know what is.

Making the Mayor’s Reforms Mean Something

As protesters continued their daily marches against police brutality, Mayor Ben Walsh proposed 16 reforms to the Syracuse Police Department.

All sixteen are good and should have been put in place years ago. Most are small changes that could temper the most racist least just excesses of a systematically racist and unjust institution—body cameras to record when officers break the law, real bans on predictably lethal tactics, habeas corpus.

But there is one ‘reform’ in this package that contains the potential for a true reformation of municipally administered public safety:

This sounds a lot like what people mean when they say Defund Police—shrinking the footprint of police responsibility so that officers focus on investigation and evidence gathering in support of the DA’s office while giving up responsibility for intervening in domestic disputes, mental health crises, housing insecurity, traffic violations, and other situations when the threat of lethal force and incarceration predictably result in brutality and death. It would eliminate so many unnecessary inherently escalatory interactions between armed police officers and members of the public, and it would significantly reduce SPD’s budget, allowing for that money to be better spent keeping the community safe.

But the devil is in the details, and City Hall phrased this proposal in such a way that it could easily amount to nothing worth talking about. Specifically, what does ‘non-criminal’ mean?

So many laws serve to criminalize poverty and illness that something as non-threatening as a man sleeping in a park could be considered an instance of ‘criminal’ activity.

An overdose is first and foremost a medical emergency, but drug-use is a crime, so will the police still show up with their guns and their tasers and their handcuffs?

What about the case of Alonzo Grant? He called the police to deal with a domestic dispute, and they ended up beating him and charging him with multiple crimes. It doesn’t matter that all of those charges were quickly dismissed, according to the police in the moment, Grant was a criminal. Under the Mayor’s proposal, was that a ‘non-criminal’ situation?

Or what about traffic enforcement? SPD uses it as a pretext to find other crimes, so any routine ‘non-criminal’ traffic stop carries with it the potential for turning into a violent confrontation. How would this proposal apply to a situation like that?

All of which is why the Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition calls City Hall’s 16 proposals “initial steps” and says that they alone are “not nearly enough to meet the moment we find ourselves in today.”

Politicians put proposals like these out there to try and mollify people—to seem to have taken the action that protesters are demanding. But the real work is turning these proposals into policy. The PBA understands this, and they’re going to fight each and every reform. Everyone who wants a more just, more equitable, more peaceful City needs to continue to fight back, to make these reforms really mean something.

Systematic Reformation of Public Safety

Protests across the county have shown that American policing is broken—every single city has local cases of abuse, brutality, and murder to march against, and in every single city police have responded to criticism with military force. The problem isn’t just ‘a few bad apples,’ the problem is a broken institution that replicates the same unacceptable, anti-democratic, racist problems no matter where it’s implemented and no matter who is in charge.

So it’s good to hear that elected officials across America—including those with power in this City—are listening to the protesters. The Mayor is talking about structural reform to combat this systemic problem, and the Governor will withhold state funding from police departments that refuse to “reform themselves.”

But ‘reform’ can mean a lot of different things, and the kind of ‘reform’ that we’ve all seen for years—more training, new technology, revised codes of conduct—are clearly insufficient to meet the demands that protesters are making today.

In Syracuse, protesters have issued the People’s Agenda for Policing: a list of nine demands that could make real change in the SPD—not the kind of weak ‘reform’ that tinkers with the existing system—a system that is hopelessly broken—but a real reformation of the institutions of Public Safety in this community.

Reducing the “oversized role of policing” means taking traffic enforcement out of armed officers’ hands. Traffic enforcement should make our streets safer, but instead racism and the incentive structure of policing serves to make the traffic cop a threat to safety on the street—people don’t get stopped for breaking the law, they get stopped in order to make the department money, or to get a drug bust press release, or to just perform dominance.

Instead, use cameras and unarmed municipal employees—in the mold of crossing guards—to enforce the law without ulterior motives, to remove the inherent bias that comes when a driver tries to ‘argue their way out’ of a ticket, and to avoid unnecessary escalation. When someone runs a red, send them a ticket in the mail. If someone’s tail light is out, let them know and provide a new bulb on the spot.

Reducing the oversized role of policing means sending someone else when people call for help with domestic problems. Armed officers focused on ‘compliance’ and ‘order’ are ill-equipped to mediate these kinds of conflicts, and the predictable result is that they respond inappropriately, escalatorily, and they end up beating a man for no reason and costing City Hall $1.5 million in a police brutality lawsuit.

Instead, send social workers and trauma specialists who can mediate and de-escalate domestic disputes. Send people who have the professional judgment to determine when to attempt reconciliation or when to help a person escape an abusive relationship.

These situations—and so many others like them—do not require a gun. They do not require handcuffs or a taser. When City Hall equips police with those tools—but not the training to actually address the needs of the community—what can we expect but escalation? When the person responding to a minor traffic violation carries a gun and is empowered to take away people’s freedom, it’s no wonder that a disagreement over when to signal a turn ended with the SPD drugging and sexually assaulting Torrence Jackson. It’s shocking, appalling, disgusting, infuriating, but it’s not surprising.

So systemic reformation means fewer police officers whose very presence necessarily implies violence and incarceration, and more municipal employees who are trained and equipped to treat root causes of the problems in the community. It means taking money away from the SPD and using it to pay for staff and programs that support public safety. That’s the kind of reform that can actually deconstruct the present unacceptable system and build a new one that makes the community safe.

Quit asking if the protests are peaceful

After night fell on a day of speeches and demonstrations, a number of the protesters attacked the building where the police were waiting. The protesters were breaking the law, and they knew it, and the police responded with force.

It was 1851. It was the Jerry Rescue. There’s a monument to it in Clinton Square.

That event—one that we valorize and memorialize—parallels the protests going on in the City today, and acknowledging that means grappling with these complicated facts:

the fight against racism and white supremacy is not always legal

the fight against racism and white supremacy is not always peaceful

the fight against racism and white supremacy cannot be judged purely on its legality or its nonviolence

That’s hard for a lot of people. It’s so much easier to ask ‘well are these protesters peaceful, do they obey the law?’ Asking that question puts the burden on the protesters. It allows people to think of themselves as outside observers and to pass judgment on the protests based on how the protesters act. It puts the protests themselves on trial, and once they have been judged—peaceful, legal, good or violent, illegal, bad—then the neutral observer moves on, having made their decision, without ever actually addressing the content of the protests.

Taking these protests seriously, respecting the history of the Jerry Rescue, means instead asking ‘what are they saying, is it true, how am I implicated?’ It means hearing the names of the men, women, and children brutalized and killed by the Syracuse Police Department. It means examining the relationships between those beatings, those killings, and your own life. It means putting yourself on trial, recognizing the ties that bind you to the people whose lives the police have cut short, and deciding what you’re going to do about it.

And once you’ve done that, who cares whether or not the protests broke this curfew or smashed that window? What does any of that have to do with you, with your own action, with your response to the racism and injustice that permeates the United States, New York State, Syracuse?

How Far From Minneapolis, Syracuse?

This weekend’s protests are about Syracuse Police Department as much as they are about George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Eric Chauvin. It might be comforting to those in power to pretend otherwise, to think that it’s all about something that happened in some other community, somewhere far away from here, but that’s a lie.

Those protests are also about how police dragged Shaolin Moore from his car and beat him in the street, how their justification was that they were afraid of the communities they serve, and how they arrested Yamil Osorio in retaliation for filming the whole thing.

And those protests are about how police officer Chester Thompson used the power granted him by his badge and the gun on his belt to rape multiple women—including Maleatra Montanez—while on duty, and how the Syracuse Police Department just let it happen.

And they’re about how the Syracuse Police Department ordered medical professionals at St. Joseph’s Hospital to drug Torrence Jackson and then to sexually assault him with an anal probe.

And the protests are about how Syracuse police officers Paul Montalto and Damon Lockett beat Alonzo Grant because he punched a screen door in his own home.

And they’re about how the Syracuse Police Department singled out Elijah Johnson while breaking up a party near Syracuse University, beat him, and then falsely charged him with inciting a riot.

And those are just some of the highest profile cases of the last couple years. This list could go back for decades, more than a century, as far back as police kidnapping William “Jerry” Henry to sell him into slavery in 1851, and it go much broader, encompassing every racist traffic stop that traumatizes a family but somehow isn’t ‘newsworthy’ enough to make it into the paper.

If the people in power are actually listening, if they have ears to hear what protesters are saying, they’ll acknowledge this abuse, and they’ll use their power to end it.

Get Rid of ReZone’s Apartment Bans

City Hall’s ReZone project is an opportunity to unmake the mistakes that have made Syracuse into a segregated city. That will require change, though, because the new zoning map is drawn in such a way that it will entrench inequality and exacerbate the disparities between the City’s neighborhoods.

To see how, look at Census Tract 45 on the Eastside. This tract includes most of Westcott—a neighborhood where people want to move, where new businesses are opening, where people are investing. But Westcott is also a neighborhood where there’s not enough housing to accommodate all the people who want to live there, so rents are going up, and more people are having to crowd into what little housing there is.

3,784 people live in 1,649 homes in tract 45. Just over half of those homes are in multifamily buildings (green on the map below). The remainder are 1-family houses (yellow on the map below). Both types of housing are mixed across the tract.

Housing in tract 45. Single family homes in yellow and multifamily homes in green.

ReZone allows single family housing everywhere in the City, but it bans multifamily housing from huge swaths of Syracuse, mostly in high opportunity neighborhoods like Westcott. The most recent draft of the new zoning map bans multifamily housing from most of tract 45. If it had been law when Westcott was originally laid out, less than half of the existing multifamily housing in the neighborhood could ever have been built.

Thankfully, all that existing multifamily housing will be grandfathered into ReZone as ‘noncomformities,’ but that label limits owners’ ability to invest in these homes—they won’t be able to make major renovations or additions—and the lot-by-lot ban on multifamily housing also will limit the opportunity to build enough new housing to relieve the neighborhood’s housing shortage. That will drive up rents even further, leaving Westcott unable to accommodate the people who want to live there and excluding people according to their income and wealth. The predictable result is increased residential segregation and the spread of gentrification to other parts of the City.

Westcott is a good neighborhood with access to jobs, businesses, schools and transportation. All of those things attract people looking to make a good life in Syracuse. But legal limits on multifamily housing exclude too many of those people who want to take advantage of all that Westcott and so many other neighborhoods have to offer. This exclusionary zoning is one root of Syracuse’s shameful history of economic and racial segregation, and ReZone is an opportunity to rip it out. The new ordinance must legalize multifamily housing across the entire City if neighborhoods of opportunity are going to be fully accessible to everyone who wants to live in them.

Finding Space for Social Distancing

Coronavirus has put space at a premium. A lot of the places where we gather weren’t set up for people to keep six feet apart from each other. Packing into crowded restaurants, churches, arenas, or malls just won’t work the way it used to, and if those businesses and institutions are going to work at all, they’re going to need more space.

You don’t have to look far to find extra space. Just watch this video from the Post Standard, and you’ll see just how much space Syracuse really has.

Acres and acres of empty streets, freeways, and parking lots. All of that space is up for grabs right now, and all of it could be put to better use.

Let’s put some numbers to that. This picture shows part of Armory Square—a spot where lots of people used to pack into tight spaces. But restaurants, shops, and offices only account for about half of the total space in this picture. Sidewalks and tiny Armory Square Park are another eighth of the space. The rest is parking garages, parking lots, parking lanes, and travel lanes. Fully one third of Armory Square is reserved for the movement and storage of cars.

This is so obviously stupid that people have fought against it for years. New buildings have gone up on parking lots, pop up markets have taken over entire streets, businesses have turned parking lanes into outdoor seating, and City Hall is looking at closing one block of Walton Street to cars for good.

Coronavirus only makes all that even more necessary in every city neighborhood—people need space to meet up, to have church, to pass each other on the sidewalk. Syracuse can’t work the old way—ample room for cars, but not enough for people—when we’re all keeping our distance. If it’s going to work at all, then we’re going to have to make more space for people, and the fastest way to do that is to take it back from cars.

The Recipe for BRT

The recipe for good public transportation is simple: (1) run lots of buses (2) in straight lines (3) that connect lots of people (4) to the places where they want to go. Do that, and people will ride.

The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council followed that recipe when it designed two new crosstown bus rapid transit lines (BRT) for Centro. One will run from Eastwood to OCC, and the other will run from Syracuse University to the Regional Transportation Center. Together, these two lines will make Centro much more useful to many more people, and they’ll make Syracuse a better City.

Run lots of buses…

When the bus runs every fifteen minutes, you always know that you won’t have to wait very long for the next one to show up. That’s incredibly freeing because it means you don’t have plan your day around the bus schedule. You can leave the house when you want, and you can head back home when you want. No more worrying about catching the one single bus that can get you where you’re going on time.

Centro’s new BRT lines will run every fifteen minutes minutes all day. It will be a huge improvement over Centro’s current service, and it will make the bus useful for people making all kinds of different trips at all hours of the day.

In Albany, the next Red Line bus is never more than 15 minutes away

…in straight lines…

A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Buses that travel in straight lines get you where you’re going faster. There’s no need to zig and zag your way across the entire City when you’re just trying to get home.

And speaking of speed, BRT lines in other cities use a few more tricks to make their buses go faster: smart traffic lights, bus lanes, level boarding platforms, fewer stops.

All of this is on the table in Syracuse. The more high-tech options—like integrating the buses with City Hall’s streetlight network—will be a big win for the Syracuse Surge. But it’s the low-tech stuff—running straight down James Street without detouring onto Teall, stopping every ¼ mile instead of every block—that will really make these buses go fast.


…that connect lots of people…

If people are willing to walk about 10 minutes to catch the bus, then the number of people who can ride the bus depends on how many people live within a 10 minute walk of a bus stop. In neighborhoods where lots of people live near a bus stop, lots of people ride the bus.

Eastwood, the Northside, University Hill, the Southside—these are some of the most populous neighborhoods between Buffalo and New York City. Centro’s new BRT lines will be accessible to tens of thousands of Central New Yorkers, just a short walk from their front doors.

…to the places where they want to go

People get on the bus to go places. Good bus service has to pass the places that people actually want to go. It also has to serve a variety of different kinds of destinations if it’s going to attract a variety of riders over the course of the entire day.

There are plenty of places worth going in Syracuse, and these new BRT lines hit a lot of them. Whether it’s to get to one of the 50,000 jobs Downtown, at the Mall, or on University Hill, to get to class at OCC or SUNY ESF, to meet someone for drinks Downtown or on North Salina, to buy fresh food at Price Rite or the Farmers Market, to get to church or to see friends or family anywhere in the City, there will be plenty of reasons for people to ride these BRT lines.

This is a good plan to bring better bus service to Syracuse. It will serve a lot of people. It will get people through the City fast. It will take people to the places they need to go. It will make more opportunities more accessible to more people.