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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.