Transcript: NYC Public Advocate Delivers 'State Of The People' Address On Public Safety

May 18th, 2023

Press Release

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams delivered his annual 'State of the People' address on Thursday evening, with this year's speech focused on the state of public safety in New York City, threats to that safety, and how to protect it through the city's budget and policies. His address was followed by a televised town hall session with New Yorkers, moderated by award-winning journalist Cheryl Wills.

Video of the event is available on CUNY TV and the Public Advocate's website, and a full transcript of his address as delivered is below.

Thank you, and Good evening. Thank you for joining us for what I know will be an honest conversation with New Yorkers here in this room and around the city about our greatest needs and greatest opportunities in this moment.

Throughout this week my office has held events to engage the community around some of the most urgent issues we face as the city – on housing, education, transportation, incarceration. And tonight I want to focus on an issue that is at the top of New Yorkers’ minds and media almost daily. As we discuss the state of the people, it’s past time to discuss the state of public safety.

The People have a right to be safe, and the People have a right to feel safe. Our government has a role to play in protecting each of these rights, in protecting public safety for New Yorkers. Yet the state of public safety in New York is uncertain at best.

Safety and security are at the front of New Yorkers’ minds and the heart of their concerns. Physical safety, yes, but also financial security. In an affordability crisis that has made our city the most expensive in the world, half of all New York City families are unable to afford even the minimum costs of living here. People can’t make ends meet, or see an end to the compounding crises that brought us to this point. Every day on our screens or our streets we see the consequences of crises and cruelty – in gun violence, in homelessness, in pain and poverty.

And elected officials and media have played a role in fueling and fanning false perceptions of public safety – despite the fact that New York is among the safest big cities in the nation. Statistics mean nothing to the victims of crime, I know, and they have done little to calm the citywide anxiety around public safety to this point. The truth is that right now, New Yorkers are scared, and their fears are real.

I’m scared, too. 

I’m scared, because I think we have an opportunity now, finally, after years and even decades of resistance, to explore, reimagine, and implement a more comprehensive and effective public safety effort. I think we have a moment when people are listening, a moment when we could be united behind a holistic approach to producing public safety. When the premises and programs we have advocated for so many years could make their greatest impact.

And I’m scared that we will miss this moment, or more specifically, misuse it.

Instead of using this heightened awareness of and concern about public safety to get at the true root causes, in the last week, months, and years I’ve seen leaders respond by pushing policies that prey on fears rather than treating their underlying causes.

They often speak about and act on public safety in ways that fuel those fears instead of quelling them, whether out of a cynical effort to drive a narrative, a desperate response to headlines and criticism, or even a misguided effort to truly provide support. But this rhetoric does more damage to public safety than any of the policies they oppose. 

If part of government’s responsibility is to help New Yorkers FEEL safe, our leaders are failing.

But what about actually BEING safer? In order to improve public safety, we have to align policies, programs, and funding. The state budget was just passed. The city budget is in its final weeks of negotiation. And I am scared that we will continue patterns of the past, which rely on a faulty notion and narrative about what public safety is.

First and foremost, public safety is not simply about law enforcement or the criminal legal system. That’s an attitude and a narrative that has brought us to the place we are today and led to policies that inflicted decades of harm, policies people are still apologizing for today. 

Law enforcement has a role to play in public safety, yes. They are a partner in public safety – but their role has to be limited in scope and grounded in accountability. Yet we ask our police to do too much, to take on responsibilities best left to other agencies better equipped for them. 

Even the areas they are best equipped for, such as immediate threats of gun violence, can only be achieved in collaboration with community-led solutions. The role we give police in public safety is overwhelming, and the MONEY we give them is overwhelming – and in our budget priorities, we need to align spending so other services have what they need.

No one inciting public safety panic today would count the historically highest-policed communities in our city among the safest. Still, people oversimplify and equate policing and public safety today because that’s what they’re told by leaders, and reinforced by media and culture.

Over time we have created a culture of stigmatizing rather than supporting people in need. A culture of fear and dehumanization that means people are shot on suspicion for going to a neighbor’s house. One where a man in desperate need of food, housing, and mental healthcare is strangled on the subway. One where it’s controversial to say those actions are wrong. One where people are viewed as a threat because of their identity, or their income, or systemic circumstance that damages their own sense of safety. That is not something you can meet with more police or more restrictive bails laws, and it’s not public safety.

We have to ask – What IS safety?

Safety is coming home to housing that has heat and hot water, not mold or roaches. It’s knowing that you can pay rent, and won’t face unjust eviction or unethical rent increases, that your home is secure from foreclosure or deed theft. A budget that doesn’t increase the number of inspectors, one that doesn’t adequately support the physical and mental health of tenants, forcing more people onto streets and into shelters, is a threat to public safety.

Safety is knowing you can send your children to schools throughout their educational journey which meet their needs in the moment and provide continued opportunities to learn and grow, from early childhood through to adulthood. It’s knowing that children have access to the services that will keep them in school and out of danger. It’s access to youth jobs for students, and fair-wage jobs for their families. A budget that cuts public school seats, cuts social workers, and focuses on punitive practices, rather than restorative ones is a threat to public safety.

Safety is living without the threat of cancer, asthma, and other health issues caused by pollutants that cloud our city. It’s traveling that city on rapid, reliable public transportation, and moving through the streets without the fear of traffic violence. It’s the security of homes and neighborhoods that are equipped to protect against ever-more-frequent catastrophic weather events. A budget that fails to invest in green infrastructure, green transportation, or green spaces, one that does not increase safety inspections of existing, aging buildings and infrastructure, is a threat to public safety.

Safety is access to services and supports for mental health, to treating mental health concerns and preventing dangerous mental health crises. It’s the confidence that if you need help in a mental health emergency, you’ll be met with peers and providers, not just police. It’s the comfort that services, not stigma, will be the response of not just the government but those around you – that a crisis of public health will be met with sufficient resources on an individual and systemic level. A budget that focuses on removing, detaining, criminalizing, and dehumanizing people in crisis and fails to provide adequate personnel or programming Is a threat to public safety.

Safety is access to common-sense protections, adaptations, and healthcare as we continue to recover from a pandemic that we are learning to live with, but cannot ignore.

Safety is the ability to come here seeking asylum and be met with the compassion and resources needed – to find relief in hardship, not to be treated as a burden or a bargaining chip. It’s knowing that your needs won’t be pitted against the needs of others – and a budget that positions marginalized people against one another is a threat to public safety.

Safety is knowing that your government works on your behalf – and that it is working at all. That the staff, services, and systems which power our city and empower its residents are strong. A budget that prioritizes austerity for the sake of image, that puts looking good over doing good, is a threat to public safety.

With this budget, we have an opportunity to invest in public safety policies that will meet our mandate to help New Yorkers be safe and feel safe, and last beyond any news cycle or administration.

This is the real work of public safety. It’s less easily accepted or explained in an environment of short headlines and long political campaign seasons.

But it’s work we have to commit to, and stand by. We can’t bend to the political environment or prevailing narrative – we have to shape it, and demand our leaders do the same. With all populations, in all communities across our city.

New Yorkers have a right to go to school without fear of being struck by a stray bullet. A right to walk the street without being harassed or intimidated. A right to play and shop and work and live free from the threat or fear of danger. But we have to ask the right questions to implement the right solutions – what are the root causes? What’s truly going to keep people safe? Locking up the communities and children of the people we criminalized in past decades, or lifting those same communities and children up?

And scapegoating, strawmanning equivocating, dismissing proven policies as “woke” or people pushing for change as agitators to be ignored – that’s not public safety. That’s public posturing. 

I’m proud to be an agitator, and I am agitated now, as I see words and decisions that undermine the safety of our neighbors in order to save a few dollars, or to save face. For all the purported focus on safety, this proposed budget is dangerous. And I will continue to push back, on behalf of the people.

Because even in the face of uncertainty, adversity, and fear, I remain hopeful. I remain hopeful that conversations with this administration will lead to change of policies, of minds, and of the narrative. That conversation with New Yorkers will help to build consensus and coalition around true public safety – a dialogue I’m excited to have tonight, through the budget season, and beyond as we build a movement. Because when it comes to the state of the people, in solidarity, there is safety – and when we can produce true, sustained safety, all New Yorkers – the agitated and the fearful, the hopeful and the exhausted, the uneasy and the undeterred can find peace. 

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