Additional reporting by Alyssa Katz
When New Yorkers walk into a police precinct, they are generally greeted by a uniformed officer behind a desk who spends shifts answering the phone and filing paperwork.
Cops have handled clerical duties for decades despite multiple legal rulings ordering the NYPD to replace those officers with less expensive civilian employees known as police administrative aides.
An estimated 500 police officers are working full-time in clerical roles within the department, with many assigned to stationhouses across the city, according to Ralph Palladino, second vice president of District Council 37’s Local 1549, which represents the administrative aides.
Palladino and other supporters of so-called civilianization say replacing the cops with clerical workers would save the city an estimated $30 million a year and free up more officers for street patrols.
The longstanding push for civilianization comes as calls to defund the NYPD or halt its scheduled upcoming class of recruits gain momentum after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police triggered protests throughout the country.
A ‘More Humane’ Force
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police captain, said civilianization could go beyond largely desk jobs to even top spots, like precinct commander.
“There’s no rule that states that you have to be a law enforcement person, you could be a civilian and be a police commissioner,” Adams, a likely mayor candidate, told THE CITY as he handed out masks in front of East Midwood Jewish Center on Friday.
“So there are ways to change the paramilitary physical aspect of policing and civilianize and make it more humane in nature,” he added. “And that’s something that we should look into.”
On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would shift money from the Police Department’s $6 billion budget to youth organizations as part of “deeper reforms” to address “profound disparities.”
He did not specify how much money would be moved, saying that information would be detailed in the upcoming budget process due to finish by July 1.
Uniformed police unions have long argued that the additional cops, even those with desk jobs, are necessary in case there’s an emergency, and they’ve pushed back any serious moves to swap in civilian staffers.
Still, de Blasio, during a private meeting with Local 1549 two years ago, promised that he would fully civilianize NYPD administrative work before he left office, according to Palladino.
“But so far we haven’t seen anything move,” Palladino said. “We are getting nowhere with the city powers on this issue.”
First to Get Cut
Supporters of the police administrative aides fear they will face the brunt of any budget cuts to the NYPD.
They point out that the number of civilian aides and supervisors has dropped by approximately 300 via attrition over the past three years. The NYPD currently employs a little over 2,000 police administrative aides and senior police administrative aides.
“That scares us,” Palladino said. “If you want to reduce the NYPD, they can turn around and eliminate clericals or other titles like housekeeping.”
The fear is not unprecedented: In 2009, the Bloomberg administration proposed replacing 989 civilians with cops. Those cuts were avoided due to pushback from DC37.
The starting salary of police officers is $42,500 and rises to $85,292 after five and a half years. By contrast, police administrative aides earn $33,875 annually and do not receive a host of other benefits given to cops, like unlimited sick leave and a year-end pension bonus.
The union noted city Comptroller Scott Stringer two years ago vowed in a meeting to conduct an audit to project how much civilianizing the NYPD could save the city.
The report remains a work in progress.
“While several unforeseen issues delayed this audit, including the ongoing pandemic, the Office of the Comptroller is committed to its completion,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, Stringer spokesperson.
Former city comptrollers William Thompson and Alan Hevesi both estimated the city could save millions of dollars by civilianizing.
Desk Work vs. Street Work
One police expert cautioned that each position should be looked at carefully before being civilianized. Cops who manage phones and handle paperwork can be switched out, said Joseph Pollini, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and retired NYPD lieutenant.
But cops are needed to maintain security in stationhouses in case of emergencies — as when a gunman opened fire inside a Bronx precinct in February, he said. Also, officers who are injured, facing disciplinary charges or are pregnant typically handle clerical work.
“You have to put them somewhere and you can’t put them on the street,” he said.
In 2004, the union representing police administrative workers won what appeared at the time to be a huge arbitration decision directing the NYPD to replace all police officers on desk duty with civilian staff.
The decision was upheld in court in subsequent years, but the Police Department has been slow to act.
A 2016 report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that the NYPD was actually slightly increasing its uniformed headcount while reducing the number of civilians. “Progress along the civilianization front seems to have stalled,” the report said.
The NYPD declined to comment.
In a September 2019 report submitted to the City Council, the department said 368 posts are available for civilianization.
The number was as high as 700 several years ago, indicating some progress. It went down in part because the city created the civilian civil service title of “crime analyst,” according to union officials.
One key city lawmaker can’t understand why the NYPD still hasn’t fully civilianized,
“It puzzles me,” said City Councilmember Donovan Richards (D-Queens), chair of the Council’s committee on public safety. “Every year, I say the same thing: Why don’t we put cops behind a desk on the street?”
He added: “No police commissioner has really taken this on.”
Richards suggested that calls to reform the NYPD may finally push the department to change.
“That’s the debate we are all having right now,” he said. “It’s reimagining the Police Department. They shouldn’t be engaged in clerical duties.