Now on View: NYC’s Bloated Police Budget

Elaine Velie
Amidst art galleries and bustling brunch spots near the Spring Street station in Manhattan’s trendy Nolita neighborhood, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is showcasing the bloated budget of the New York Police Department (NYPD) — $11 billion per year, or $29 million per day. It’s the second time the advocacy organization has presented an exhibition in its pop-up Museum of Broken Windows; the first was in 2018. The current show, titled Twenty-Nine Million Dreams, runs through May 6. The museum name references the “broken windows theory,” a policing strategy developed in the 1970s. The concept hinges on the idea that petty crime will lead to larger crimes; that if people in a neighborhood observe minor criminal acts happening around them — drug use or graffiti, for example — citizens will perceive their community as uncared for and this will lead to greater criminal activity. Although the concept remains unproven, it has been applied to neighborhoods and cities with disastrous results (Mayor Rudy Giuliani implemented it in New York in the early 1990s). When the “broken windows theory” is put into practice, police departments do not focus on stopping major criminal acts and instead attack individuals on the street-level, persecuting people including drug users, street artists, and sex workers. News articles describe issues with the city’s policing. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic) The theory creates policing methods that persecute poor communities and provides a pseudo-scientific framework for race-based policing. “When we were designing this show, we knew we were looking for artwork that spoke to the heaviness and the seriousness — the weight — of excessive policing,” Daveen Trentman, who co-curated the exhibition alongside Terrick Gutierrez, said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “But also artwork that really uplifts the beauty of people and of community and that showcases an affirmative vision of a world that doesn’t rely on the police to fix all of our problems.” The ground floor of Twenty-Nine Million Dreams uses text, infographics, old newspaper articles, and artwork to communicate the issue with extreme clarity. City politics often emerge into the public consciousness as seemingly never-ending, tedious, and confusing, but the show explains the urgency of these conversations. Currently, the City Council and Mayor’s Office are in negotiations over the municipal budget, which allocates funding for the NYPD. Funding for libraries and other services is under threat, and an infographic on the stairs shows the distribution of city money in relation to the police budget, which continues to grow. Trentman said the floor of the exhibition is intended to display the seriousness and human consequence of the policies being discussed. “As we’re talking about things such as how much we’re spending and what kind of policies we need, we really want people to be reminded that there are severe, sometimes deadly consequences to those things,” Trentman said. Artist Tracy Hetzel’s watercolor series depicts people holding photographs of their loved ones who were killed by police. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic) Images of Breonna Taylor and other people killed by police are scattered throughout this first floor. A printed text in the back of the space explains the severity of the crisis at Rikers Island — 17 people died there last year, the highest recorded number in its 90-year history. Artist Jesse Krimes’s 20-by-34-foot “Rikers Quilt” (2020) quite literally reveals the horrors inside the massive jail. Krimes’s work comprises 3,650 individual squares to represent every day of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2017 promise to close the prison in 10 years. Calendar dates are printed on top. The colorful work, made with prison-issued bed sheets, stretches from the ceiling of the vast gallery space to the floor. “Jesse’s theory of beauty is that as humans, we’re drawn in to vibrant colors and visually pleasing things to the eye,” said Trentman. Krimes was formerly incarcerated at Rikers. “But as you get drawn in, he created a second layer,” Trentman continued. The outer part is intended to be slashed open, although only a couple squares have been so far. Documented photographs of abuse at Rikers lie beneath the quilt’s bright facade. Jessie Krimes’s “Rikers Quilt” (2020) stretches from the ceiling to the floor. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic) A work created by co-curator Gutierrez depicts an NYPD floodlight. Mayor Bill de Blasio sent hundreds of these machines to public housing projects in a campaign to stop nighttime crime. They still illuminate those spaces. (The initiative was unbelievably named “Omnipresence.”) “These shine into the homes of families and elderly people and are really harmful,” Trentman said. Guitierrez replaced the floodlight’s serial number with its Kelvin temperature. Anything over 3,000 is considered harmful to the human eye, but the floodlight clocks in at almost 4,000. Upstairs, Trentman and Gutierrez have created a space “designed to be an almost visceral, tonal shift,” according to Trentman. Natural light illuminates a space filled with greenery and plants. The artworks on its walls celebrate individuals and communities. Those works include a 2018 series of photographs taken by artist Andre Wagner of people in Bushwick and images by Steven Eloiseau and Eva Woolridge that depict a father and son and the hand of Woolridge’s mother. A series of work by artists Andre Wagner, Steven Eloiseau, and Eva Woolridge celebrate moments of joy and their communities. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic) Just as showcased in the works a floor below, the art upstairs also exhibits active resistance. A two-part series by Susan Chen, for example, celebrates Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood and documents collective organizing in response to the the proposed Chinatown mega-jail. A three-part series of photographs by Gabriel Chiu showcases a picket line in Chinatown while also exploring concepts of poverty and gentrification. “All of the work on the second floor showcases the beauty of people or communities,” Trentman said. “And really shows what a world could look like if we weren’t so reliant on the police.” An infographic puts the NYC budget into perspective. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic) Left: Terrick Gutierrez, “Never Needed Police Departments (2023), mixed media on canvas; right: Reginald “Dwayne” Betts and Titus Kaphar, “Untitled” (2019) from Redaction, intaglio print on paper Susan Chen, “Chinatown Black Watch” (2022) and “Stop The Mega Jail” (2022) (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic) A text explaining the crisis at Rikers Island (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic) Gabriel Chiu, “Emma” (2023), “Picket Line” (2023), “Pantry” (2023) (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
© Davy Mellado, 2022. All rights reserved.