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Reimagining the Justice System, From Inside the Mayor’s Office

Over the past year, civil rights protests have put American cities under pressure to rethink public safety. Even though calls to “defund the police” have lost some political momentum in New York, part of what the movement pushed for — investing in social services as a way to curb violence — has been a priority in the city for years. Much of that is overseen by Eric Cumberbatch, a deputy director in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

A native New Yorker, Mr. Cumberbatch worked as a public-school teacher and then for the New York City Housing Authority before joining Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in 2014. Three years later, he was tapped to lead the city’s new Office to Prevent Gun Violence, which now oversees a network of community-based initiatives with a $69 million budget.

Mr. de Blasio recently expanded this approach to gun violence, but its long-term prospects are uncertain, particularly as the city wrestles with a jump in shootings, including last weekend’s in Times Square, and mayoral candidates offer their own proposals.

Last month, Mr. Cumberbatch spoke with The New York Times. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

What brought you to this line of work?

I was born in NYCHA public housing in Far Rockaway, to a very young mother who had five boys. And my father struggled with heroin. We bounced around the city, lived in multiple boroughs, had everyday struggles that I think many New Yorkers face today. And I think that’s a story about perseverance, and seeing yourself through hardship, and feeling the calling to go back into the community and lead.

Many people who face those challenges do not arrive where you are. What made the difference?

I had great people around. I had an uncle in prison, and he would call on a regular basis. Whatever hardship I was going through, he would use his own scenarios and share with me.

When was his influence most important?

When I was an undergraduate, I had just received a scholarship to go to graduate school and someone broke into my dorm room, they stole some stuff. Long story short, I wanted to take matters into my own hands. And the person who was able to intervene was my uncle.

What was the original vision for the Office to Prevent Gun Violence?

Most places in the United States deal with gun violence with an enforcement, incarceration and prosecution type of approach. Oftentimes, that exacerbates situations. And it’s not addressing root causes as to why individuals are trapped in systems that allow gun violence to be pervasive.

What are some of the office’s concrete activities around the city?

At the core, it’s about street outreach, working with individuals who are known to be in networks that involve gun carrying. For some people, it looks like mediation. For others, it could be actual de-escalation of things that are happening in real time. We use other resources like nontraditional mental health services, legal services, intensive mentoring.

What did establishing a citywide office change?

It gave legitimacy: There are alternative ways to address violence outside of aggressive policing and overincarceration. One of the beautiful components of our approach is to bring people to the forefront who have been involved in gun violence in the past and make them part of the solution. Formerly incarcerated individuals can become outreach workers and violence interrupters. These are individuals who are oftentimes very influential in the communities that they’re going into. They’re able to speak about the types of behavioral choices because they’ve experienced them themselves.

And your work force has grown?

Absolutely. We’re probably in the mid-200s and we’re looking to double that over the next fiscal year.

This last year, there were more shootings in New York City than there have been since 2008, part of a nationwide increase. Do you see that as a setback?

I don’t necessarily think in terms of setbacks. What we’ve learned from Covid is that there are a lot of systems that weren’t necessarily viewed as contributing to public safety — but when you have complete lockdown, all of those things are taken away. I look back at when I was a teacher: I might have been the only person that told a young person “good morning” that day or who hugged someone as I was walking out of the school building. How many lives did that save? How much stress did that take off someone, showing them they are cared for? So, when we think about a complete closing of all of these structures that supported people — whether or not they were optimal at supporting them — just that removal in itself fractured an already turbulent and vulnerable environment.

Some public officials have connected the increase in violence to the state’s bail reform last year. Do you think there’s any validity to that argument?

Safety starts in the community and is upheld by the community. If you’re telling a story about community safety that points to courts, that points to police, those systems are far too late. If I want to talk about public safety, I’m speaking about prenatal care, about schools and early childhood education, communication skills, mentoring, economic mobility for families, mental health counseling. For me, the earliest interventions and consistent support for communities are what’s called for and what’s needed.

I hear you. But because the budget for policing is so enormous and the idea of the police as safety enforcers is so dominant, can you really do your work in isolation without confronting or changing this reality?

We’re at the beginning of a drastic shift. Most people are attached to what they know, and the only tool that the vast majority of the population knows on how to bring down crime is through police. And I think as people are more informed and there is greater awareness around what the alternatives are and what the possibilities are, the system has no path forward but to begin to right-size itself.

Last year, calls to “defund the police” became ubiquitous. How realistic are those demands?

The history of how policing in America started, what policing has looked like through Jim Crow, through civil rights and how police have been mobilized to be in confrontation with the Black and brown community — that’s a reality. I’m for abolishing the practice of overtly racist and biased policing, and I think any right-minded individual would be behind that and I think police officers would be behind that. I am for the reimagining of what this entire justice system should and could look like. At the forefront of that has to be real meaningful engagement and true vision from the people who have been most impacted by these systems. I don’t want to be framed as just focusing on the justice system: This has to include every single government entity.

You used the term “right-sized” earlier. In New York City, five years from now, what would right-sized investments in public safety look like?

I don’t know particular numbers, but speaking broadly, if 10 years ago there were the same number of people on Rikers Island that there are today, how do we justify having a budget that’s larger now? The data don’t match up. And right-sizing who’s fit to be deployed: Why is it that there’s the overreliance on police to respond to what many would consider quality-of-life conditions or social service issues or mental health issues?

You live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. When you walk around the neighborhood, do you ever see the fruits of your work?

It’s not a neighborhood that’s involved in gun violence. So, I look at Bed-Stuy and I see the holistic growth. I see homeowners that are instilling pride on their blocks, transportation that actually functions, streets and sidewalks that are clean. All of those things are just as important.

And if your vision became a reality, we would expect similar scenes across the country?

Yeah, we’re not talking about rocket science. White communities have been able to function forever without an overreliance on police. And white men and women feel empowered to dictate what change looks like in their communities, how agencies show up in their communities, how their kids are treated, and how services are provided to them. All we’re saying is we can also do that with Black people.

What do you hope the legacy of this office will be?

Reframing what justice looks like in New York City.

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