NYC Mayoral Forum Grills Candidates on Decriminalization and Overdose

March 19, 2021

Even before COVID-19 hit the city hard, New York’s elected officials failed for years to slow rising homelessness amid a shrinking stock of affordable housing. The New York Police Department (NYPD) and the city’s Rikers Island jail system have perpetuated violent abuses with little accountability against mostly Black and Brown New Yorkers, something that only became clearer during the racial justice uprisings last summer. Meanwhile, overdose has surged—killing nearly five New Yorkers a day in the first quarter of 2020.

As incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio transitions out of office in 2022, his successor will inherit these massive challenges—but also the opportunity to try what’s never been done to fix them.

On March 17, eight candidates for NYC Mayor convened for a virtual forum hosted by VOCAL-NY about how to create a “caring and compassionate” city. VOCAL organizers Jawanza Williams and Alyssa Aguilera questioned each candidate about the city’s police and jail systems, homelessness and drug enforcement. 

The candidates in attendance were: Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough president; Shaun Donovan, former federal housing and urban development secretary; Kathryn Garcia, former city sanitation director; Raymond McGuire, former vice chair of Citigroup; Dianne Morales, CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods; Scott Stringer, city comptroller; Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America and 2020 presidential candidate; and Maya Wiley, New School professor. Carlos Menchaca, New York City Council Member for the 38th District, was invited but could not attend.


Reforming and Defunding NYPD

All candidates agreed that at least some reform is needed for NYPD, but they differed on the specifics. 

NYPD should focus on serious crimes on the rise including gun violence,” said McGuire. “I call for proportionality … when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

McGuire pledged to strengthen civilian oversight over the NYPD by mandating that all body-cam footage be released within 48 hours if requested. He also promised to create a 24-hour social services hotline to respond to calls about mental health, drug use and homelessness. But he said his “emergency social workers” would also work with NYPD on certain callswhich risks armed police and vulnerable people crossing paths where they don’t need to. He supported NYPD performing more “community policing” and expanding police athletic leagues, and declined to specify a dollar amount by which he would reduce the department’s budget.

Stringer touted his four-year plan to cut the budget by $1.4 billion. “We will invest in programs that keep kids away from the justice system,” he said. “The job of the police is not to respond to mental health or quality of life calls.” He applauded a community-focused 911 call program in Eugene, Oregon, that he hopes NYC could replicate.

Garcia called for more “collaboration” between mental health care workers and NYPD. She supports police responding to drug-related calls. “Little children can’t be walking to school past people openly dealing and doing drugs,” she said. She added that we still need to divert people away from the criminal justice system. “The first time a kid shoplifts, what is going on?” she asked. “We can have both NYPD reform, and safety in our communities with a focus on the uptick in gun violence.”

Wiley cited her plan to take $18 million from NYPD and divert it to “participatory justice funds.” These would be given to communities to decide how to spend for themselves. She said she might ultimately cut as much as $3 billion from the police budget.

Donovan called to divert $500 million from the NYPD to local communities, and reduce overall criminal justice system spending by 20 percent. He promised housing vouchers for people re-entering society after incarceration.

Morales pledged to reduce the NYPD budget by $3 billion within her first year as mayor. She would reinvest the money in community services, including healthcare and housing.

Yang criticized the city for underinvesting in resources for mental health care, substance use disorder and homelessness. “There may be occasions where police should be present,” he said. “But they shouldn’t be the primary actor.” He didn’t specify an amount by which he would reduce the police budget.

Adams largely agreed with this reasoning. “I believe the overwhelming number of cases don’t need police to be there,” he said. “But in certain situations, you need to police to protect the lives of the person in crisis, their family members, and the mental health professional.” Adams is a former NYPD officer. He promised to tackle excessive overtime pay, assign civilians to do some police roles and reduce “militarization of the force,” but declined to specify an amount by which he would reduce the police budget.


Decriminalizing Drugs

VOCAL congratulated the state of Oregon for voting recently to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs and asked each candidate if they, too, supported this approach.

Morales was the only candidate who unequivocally supported decriminalizing all drugs. 

Yang endorsed legalizing marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms and discussed “decriminalizing prescription opiates.” But the most action he agreed to take was instructing all five county prosecutors to not prosecute simple drug possession charges—an instruction they may choose to ignore. 

Stringer didn’t give a clear answer, but said that “safe consumption and overdose prevention are the future”. 

Wiley also evaded the question, though she stated her support for decriminalizing marijuana and making naloxone more available.

Adams opposed full decriminalization, but supported legalizing marijuana. “I don’t support legalizing crack cocaine … or heroin or hard serious drugs.” He seemed to be under the false impression that “decriminalization” legalizes the buying and selling of drugs.

McGuire’s comments suggested he would support harmful policies that encourage homicide charges against people who sell drugs and deny them treatment services, scaring people away from calling 911 during an overdose.

“We need to recognize between those who need help for substance abuse, versus organized trafficking rings and doctors who legally prescribe opioids,” said McGuire. “I do not support decriminalizing. Not all drugs are created the same. I will focus on those responsible for the spread of drugs in our communities.”

Donovan said he had “concerns” about decriminalizing all drugs. “I have seen the devastation of fentanyl … as well as highly addictive, deadly drugs where even small amounts can have life-altering consequences and even cause death.”

Garcia stated that she was in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. “But there are other substances like fentanyl or cocaine where you don’t know how your body will react,” she said. “Back in the day we had young basketball players who died of heart attacks after their first use.” She did concede that she would make medications for opioid use disorder, like Suboxone and methadone, more easily available. 


Abolishing the Special Narcotics Prosecutor

The organizers asked all candidates if they supported disbanding the NYC Office of Special Narcotics Prosecutor. This office was created in the 1970s as a separate entity from the five other county prosecutors’ offices in the city. It focuses only on “higher-level” drug charges; no other city in the country has such an office. 

Nearly all candidates agreed to disband the special prosecutor.

“The War on Drugs has not worked and this office just furthers that failed policy,” Yang said. 

Only Adams refused to give a clear answer. “I cannot answer yes or no to that because there’s caveats and I don’t want to be misquoted,” he said.

Donovan, Garcia and Wiley weren’t asked the question during their speaking time.


Closing Rikers

Mayor de Blasio first pledged to close the Rikers Island jail in March 2017. It is currently slated to stay open until 2026, by which time it will be replaced by four new jails. All candidates agreed to the closure, but disagreed on what—if anything—should replace it.

Morales was the only candidate who clearly opposed building any new jails.

McGuire stated that he didn’t support building “new jails for Black or Brown people.” He then said that he supported “building ‘restorative justice centers'” because of a need to “accommodate between those who commit high-level crimes and those who don’t deserve to be in jail.”

Stringer denounced the plan to build four new jails. “I don’t support this current plan … I think we should have minimal construction.”

Garcia said the new jails should be built smaller, and supported expanding pretrial diversion programs like those in Red Hook and The Bronx.

Wiley pledged to close Rikers, but didn’t specify whether or not she supported the plan to replace it.

Donovan said his administration would harness the “power of design” to build jails that are more welcoming and “restorative” in nature.

Adams and Yang supported building “modified” new jails. “I think we can do it better and smarter than the current plans,” Yang said. “They seem excessive.”


Safe Consumption Sites

VOCAL raised the important drug policy issue of overdose prevention centers (OPC). In May 2018, de Blasio endorsed a plan to open four of these safe consumption sites in the city. Nearly three years later, the plan has gone nowhere—with de Blasio excusing himself by arguing that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has effectively stopped the effort. 

Stringer supported opening the OPC, “with supportive housing and jobs.”

Wiley supported them as well, and added she would pursue reforming land use rules to make it easier to open them.

Donovan, Morales, Yang and Adams also endorsed OPC, with Adams adding that the city should also implement additional services like mobile shower buses.

Garcia hedged. “I believe in them,” she said. “I will advocate for it, but the Council member in the local area has the final say on changes in land use.”

McGuire refused to clearly support opening OPC. “Around the world we’ve had mixed responses,” he falsely claimed. “We need to invest in proven strategies … I haven’t seen a clear example where this has worked on a consistent basis. We need to continue to investigate it.” Williams reminded McGuire that the city health department has already done “more investigation” and found OPC to be effective.



Photograph via Pixabay

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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