Vaccine mandates may accomplish what the defund-the-police movement could not

The NYPD could lose 30% of its workers to the vaccine mandate. Is that bad?
The NYPD could lose 30% of its workers to the vaccine mandate. Is that bad?
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Starting Oct. 29, New York City municipal employees will be required to be vaccinated against Covid-19 , and those who haven’t received at least one dose by then will be put on unpaid leave.

Among them might be about 16,500 New York Police Department (NYPD) employees—or roughly 30% of the agency’s total workforce of 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilians—who have so far refused to get vaccinated.

Police unions are planning to fight the mandate. “Now that the city has moved to unilaterally impose a mandate, we will proceed with legal action to protect our members’ rights,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, in a statement.

Opponents of the requirement envision a dire scenario: If the mandate and a $500 bonus promised to city employees for getting their first shot aren’t enough to convince hesitant police workers, the NYPD could lose almost a third of its workforce in two months.

As it happens, that’s the sort of future police force abolitionists want.

Reducing the police force would save billions

Like most other police forces in the country, the NYPD has a record of targeting people of color, especially Black residents, who make up about 25% of the city’s population but 52% of those stopped by the police. Public health organizations regard police violence as a threat to wellbeing, so a vaccine mandate that reduces the police force while ensuring all of its working members are vaccinated against Covid-19 could help tackle two public health crises at the same time.

The scenario is, of course, hypothetical. Although concerns about mass quitting have accompanied other vaccine mandates, workers have typically complied. But since there is a possibility that thousands of NYPD officers might be off the streets in a few days, it provides an opportunity to look at what a significant reduction of personnel might look like in the US’s largest police department. It wouldn’t be the full abolition of police force advocates have been calling for, but would give the city a taste of fewer police.

The NYPD budget is about $10 billion per year, of which about half goes to the actual police operation, and the rest to expenses such as pensions and other benefits. It is a considerable percentage of the city’s budget, which is around $85 billion (although it climbed to $98 billion in 2021, due to the pandemic). The NYPD also spends more than $200 million a year to settle lawsuits.

If the budget was reduced proportionally to the reduction in workforce, the city would save around $1.5 billion every year just in operating costs, without accounting for benefits savings. “It would allow for the reinvestment of billions of much-needed funds into policies and programs that have already been proven to work to produce health and safety,” says Scott Hechinger, a public defender and law enforcement reform advocate.

What can a reduced police budget fund?

For such a large agency, the NYPD is rather ineffective, says Hechinger. It solves less than a third of the serious crimes it tackles, while putting a lot of effort into arresting citizens for minor offenses—such as not paying a subway fare, trespassing, or petty theft—that don’t represent a real safety threat. Further, it’s long been known that cities with a higher concentration of police per capita don’t have lower levels of crime—in fact, the opposite is true.

The savings of the reduced NYPD workforce could be invested in interventions such as community policing, or violence reduction, as well as those aimed at reducing poverty and socioeconomic disadvantages, which have been tested in pilot programs and often found more effective than traditional policing in curbing crime, says Hechinger.

There is no guarantee that the savings from a smaller police force would be reinvested in other programs, of course—particularly considering the likely incoming mayor, Eric Adams, a former police officer, made it clear he is not going to reduce the police budget.

The case against downsizing

Not everyone agrees with the goal of a smaller police force. But in any event, staff reduction through mass quitting is unlikely to achieve what reform would do, says Maria (Maki) Haberfeld, a professor of police science at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

A police officer quitting or retiring is only an opportunity for reform if the departing officer is one that reformers would like to get rid of, and vaccine opposition isn’t necessarily an indicator of a bad officer, says Haberfeld. Further, the police should recruit differently, something that she thinks is unlikely to happen in the current anti-police climate.

A drastic reduction of the police force that is simply a consequence of vaccine hesitance might expose the city to a risk of higher crime, Haberfeld worries, rather than only reducing police violence.