photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office
Many believe that the biggest responsibility of the Mayor of New York City is to keep people safe and Bill de Blasio has largely done that, in no small part by letting his lightning-rod police commissioner, Bill Bratton, call the shots on public safety policy. The mayor has focused on pre-kindergarten and affordable housing while Bratton has governed the streets, helping bring crime down to historic lows. At the same time, Bratton has led an evolution of sorts in how his force polices the city, adjusting practices toward the fairer, more equal city de Blasio promised.
“I don’t think any of us could have predicted this much reduction in crime and this much improvement in relationship between police and community simultaneously,” de Blasio said in a recent WNYC radio interview, succinctly making his case and indicating the tough balancing act on safety and reform that he and Bratton have been attempting.
On Thursday, de Blasio and NYPD officials announced that through July, there have been the fewest number of felony crimes, including murders and shootings, and the fewest number of overall arrests, in 20 years.
For some, though, the pace and quality of change has not been nearly enough, and not what critics say de Blasio promised as a candidate for Mayor, when he pledged to “end the stop-and-frisk era,” as his son Dante famously said in a prominent TV ad, and ensure that policing is fair and constitutional in all neighborhoods.
Some point to his decision to hire Bratton, the architect of Broken Windows policing, as a long-ago sign the mayor was not serious about what they call real NYPD reform. On the other side of the ledger, some who saw crime in New York City drop precipitously over the past two decades have sounded the alarm over the reforms that have been instituted under de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Bratton in the commissioner’s second stint as the city’s top cop after a ‘90s run.
Throughout his term, de Blasio has been hit from the right and the left over police reform, or the lack thereof. To the right, de Blasio has had strong crime data and Bratton himself, an idol to many more moderate and conservative New Yorkers, to help bat back criticism or warnings of a return of “the bad old days.” To the left, de Blasio has pointed to policy changes and a different set of data, with the mayor and the police commissioner attempting to sell the “evolution” of “proactive policing,” even citing a “peace dividend” of reduced “negative interactions.” The number of arrests for lower-level crimes has dropped by the tens of thousands.
As de Blasio faces re-election next year, he’ll be judged on both how safe the city is and his record as a policing reformer. He and his allies call results in both areas outstanding, while some critics say he’s playing with fire on reform and others say he’s barely tinkered. De Blasio is likely to run in 2017 as both a crime-stopping mayor and a police reformer.
On Tuesday, a major curveball was thrown into the mix. The legendary, polarizing commissioner announced that he will retire next month. At a City Hall press conference, de Blasio heaped praise on Bratton while announcing that he will be replaced by Chief of Department James O’Neill, a veteran officer and “architect” of the NYPD’s new neighborhood policing program.
O’Neill, like de Blasio, is a Broken Windows policing disciple - both true believers in Bratton’s brand of tough, rigid enforcement of low-level offenses in order to prevent more serious crimes that is the controversial fulcrum of the debate over policing in New York. All three - de Blasio, Bratton, and O’Neill - see Broken Windows as evolving and say that the NYPD is changing for the better all the time.
Whether de Blasio is the policing reformer he claims to be is a key piece of the discussion as O’Neill begins his tenure in September and will be a source of debate through next November’s Election Day.
De Blasio’s Case for Reform
“[C]hanges in the police department now are rapid and extraordinary,” de Blasio said at a recent press conference. He was speaking in defense of an agreement between the City Council and his administration, namely the NYPD, to institute changes to the department’s patrol guide instead of passing police reform legislation with broad support. Many City Council members and police reform advocates blasted the compromise, calling into question de Blasio’s commitment to changing the NYPD and putting de Blasio and Mark-Viverito on the defensive.
The mayor took the opportunity to downplay the criticism and make his case as a reformer: “The retraining of all the officers, the neighborhood policing program, the de-escalation techniques that are being taught, the implicit bias training – all of this is happening at once,” de Blasio said. “And because of the [City] Council now, there’s going to be a whole new way to approach a number of these situations,” he added, referring to changes being brought about with respect to police stops of civilians and communication during those encounters.
Alongside the aforementioned numbers of shootings and murders, de Blasio has several other data points to make his reform case: all 34,000 police officers are being trained in de-escalation tactics and will be taught to recognize implicit biases; between 2013 and 2015, marijuana arrests fell from 28,649 to 16,030 and criminal summonses decreased from 424,850 to 297,413; stop-and-frisk incidents dropped from 191,558 to just 22,939; complaints made to the Civilian Complaint Review Board that evaluates allegations of officer misconduct also decreased from 5,388 new complaints in 2013 to 4,460 in 2015 (and there have been 2,347 complaints in 2016 through June).
Arrests for the most serious crimes, felonies like shootings and murders, are up, while arrests for lower-level crimes are down by tens of thousands. At the Thursday press conference to discuss crime numbers for 2016 through July, NYPD officials explained that they continue to heighten their use of precision policing to avoid unnecessary arrests and Bratton reiterated that notion of the “peace dividend,” whereby for minor offenses officers are relying on arrests as a last resort. They ask people to move along from a stoop or corner, encourage them to not to sleep across several seats on the subway, and so on.
Not Enough to Critics
To some City Council members, police reform advocates, and community groups, the mayor’s words ring hollow. Many who focus on the NYPD and have long-called for changes to what they say are discriminatory practices are in agreement that this mayor, who has universally stood behind Bratton and Broken Windows policing, has not lived up to his 2013 platform of police reform. De Blasio, critics say, ceded public safety policy to Bratton, who over-polices communities of color, and that the mayor is a hypocritical politician who would rather appease and compromise than implement wholesale, meaningful reform of the police department.
Bratton says his officers go where the crime is and cites the number of 911 and 311 calls that come from communities of color, including many public housing complexes. Reformers say that behaviors that have been virtually decriminalized in predominantly white communities, like riding a bike on the sidewalk, are still being heavily policed in communities of color.
For advocates across many organizations, such as Communities United for Police Reform and the Police Reform Organizing Project, and other reformers, including some elected officials, meaningful reform is not only fair enforcement in all communities and decriminalization of most low-level non-violent behaviors, but increased accountability for officers who abuse their powers. Systemic change is needed, they say, to pull policing policy out of the vicissitudes of institutional racism, protecting people’s rights in interactions with police and holding the NYPD to a higher standard.
There are calls for defunding the NYPD in order to better fund community outreach and social workers, social services, and education and employment opportunities. De Blasio has significantly increased the NYPD budget, including by adding 1,300 new officers to the force, but he has also devoted millions toward homeless outreach, mental health care, and other services to move away from arrests in many typical street encounters.
De Blasio’s focus has been on training over punishment for officers, wherein he has said that with better-trained officers, there will be far fewer bad actors to hold accountable. He acknowledges that a history of structural racism plagued the NYPD and insists that his administration has taken steps to combat it. “I am looking for the tangible, specific things that we can do to make things better,” he said in a Thursday appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, citing new methods of training and recruitment and giving police officers “a different model of policing to overcome some of the history.”
At a recent press conference, de Blasio his focus on “how you build a different kind of policing – different relationship between police and community paradigm shift, culture change.” He said that “other folks are focused more on accountability” and that “the accountability discussion is real and it’s not only important substantively, it obviously comes with tremendous emotional meaning because there has been so much pain.”
“Both have to happen and both have to give the public confidence in the rule of law,” he said. “But the one that will have by far the greater impact is the former, not the latter.”
Many outside the administration say he should indeed focus on both training and punishment. The City Council recently passed and de Blasio’s signed into law new NYPD use-of-force reporting guidelines. Still, NYPD watchdogs and critics say that officers are not disciplined for bad behavior as often as or to the extent necessary. Complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board about officer misconduct are indeed down under de Blasio and Bratton despite a time of heightened awareness about police misconduct.
There are those, including Bratton, who believe that the NYPD is better off without interference from outside quarters and that the City Council regularly oversteps its jurisdiction. At a Nov. 17 Citizens Budget Commission breakfast briefing, Bratton said, “The City Council...depending on the day of the week, is supportive and helpful or obstructive and destructive.” Referring to a number of reform bills that were under consideration by the Council at the time, Bratton said a majority of them were “unnecessary, intrusive and self-serving on the part of particular members of the Council.”
Pushback from the commissioner has slowed some reform efforts and watered down others.
Bratton insists it is better to find common ground on policy changes rather than pass more laws, while Council members bristle at the pushback against their legislative and oversight responsibilities and the power the commissioner wields within the de Blasio administration.
The mayor has made the argument that the new policies that he and Bratton are implementing will create a culture change in the city’s police department and a seismic shift in police-community relations. He has also stressed a strong collaborative effort with the City Council, which has made a significant push for criminal justice and police reform under Mark-Viverito. Even those moves, which include shifting a good deal of low-level non-violent law enforcement from the criminal to civil justice system, are often called insufficient by people who want to see an entirely new policing paradigm in New York. Still, even those reformers almost always acknowledge some progress in the moves being made.
As the mayor heads into his 2017 re-election campaign, he has some opportunity to redefine policing under incoming Commissioner O’Neill and bridge the gap in trust between police and community members that de Blasio, O’Neill, and Bratton all acknowledge continues to exist, though they say they are making strides already. At the center of this is the neighborhood policing initiative that Bratton championed, de Blasio agreed to, and O’Neill has been implementing.
Just after announcing that Bratton would be retiring and O’Neill promoted, de Blasio and the two announced that the neighborhood policing program is expanding further. With 12 more precincts beginning implementation in October, the program will cover a total of 51 percent of citywide commands and 100 percent of housing commands.
Hiring Bratton and Broken Windows
When de Blasio ran for mayor, he was Public Advocate, the elected citywide official tasked with speaking on behalf of New Yorkers who government is not properly serving. He forcefully criticized the NYPD and its over-reliance on the practice of stop-question-and-frisk, which earned him significant goodwill with communities of color and activists who saw an opportunity for change.
The way the NYPD was practicing stop-and-frisk was deemed unconstitutional in a federal lawsuit in August 2013. In part, de Blasio rode a wave of displeasure with the NYPD under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to victory in the 2013 Democratic primary, then general election for Mayor.
But much of the goodwill de Blasio cultivated began to wither when he hired Bratton to be commissioner of the police department.
“I don’t understand how the mayor’s primary agenda was to end stop-and-frisk and then he hires the architect of stop-and-frisk,” said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. For some, Bratton’s appointment was a key indicator that de Blasio wasn’t going to flip the script on policing, but would instead write a new chapter in a mostly congruent story.
While stop-and-frisks began to drop dramatically under Bloomberg given the federal case and heightened scrutiny, a significant reduction has indeed continued under de Blasio. The number of stops fell from a high of 684,330 in 2011 to 191,558 in 2013, to just 22,939 in 2015. The easing of the practice was seen as a necessary way to let air out of the ballooning tensions between the NYPD and communities of color.
Importantly, de Blasio moved to drop the appeal to the stop-and-frisk lawsuit and implement the reforms ordered by the judge, including instituting a police body camera program. The Department of Investigation also appointed an independent Inspector General for the NYPD in March 2014, mandated by a City Council bill that passed over a Bloomberg veto the previous year. In September 2015, the NYPD also introduced official receipts for stops that don’t result in arrests.
“The NYPD has been reformed as an institution in a lot of good ways,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Notably the easing up of quota-driven policing, and the level of enforcement for enforcement’s sake has been curtailed.”
But even now, those stopped-and-frisked are still overwhelmingly people of color, disproportionate to their numbers in the city population. “Even though stop-and-frisks are down, they haven’t gone away,” said Greer. “It’s better but that doesn’t mean it’s good or great.”
A February 2016 report by a federal monitor, appointed by the judge in her ruling, found that many police officers remained ignorant of the new stop-and-frisk reforms and continued to engage in unconstitutional stops.
Criticism of policing in the city goes well beyond the practice of stop-and-frisk, stretching to the overarching policy of Broken Windows. It is a controversial approach proudly pioneered by Bratton, who previously served as the city’s top cop under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani from 1994 to 1996 and was credited with drastically reducing crime across the city.
Both de Blasio and Bratton regularly stress the evolving nature of Broken Windows, pointing to the current “peace dividend” that yields far fewer arrests and negative interactions between police and civilians, fostering greater trust with communities. When a recent report by the NYPD Inspector General found no direct correlation between increased quality-of-life enforcement and reduced felony crime, many interpreted it as an indictment of Broken Windows even though the report categorically stated otherwise. Bratton aggressively criticized the report and the mayor largely agreed, though in much more delicate terms.
“Quality-of-life enforcement, or Broken Windows as it’s sometimes referred to, is an essential component of policing,” Bratton said at a June 23 news conference where he addressed the report’s findings. “Its essentiality, however, is dependent on how it is implemented. And the mayor and I have made a great deal of effort over these two-and-a-half years to modify it to reflect the changed city.”
As he has done before, Bratton drew a doctor-patient analogy of the NYPD’s role in the city, saying that the “patient” is not as sick as before and that allows him to use “less threatening medicines” to treat the problem.
In a July 26 interview with WNYC on the sidelines of the Democratic National Convention, de Blasio confirmed that he would continue Broken Windows policing even after Bratton’s tenure, while indicating that it must continue to evolve. “There is no room in that strategy for disparate treatment of communities,” he said. “There is no room in that strategy, from my point of view, to leave it stale. It has to be constantly updated in terms of the training of our officers.”
Citing the one million fewer encounters between the police and the community, de Blasio indicated that there was a disconnect between public perception and actual results. “I think a lot of the critique is being answered on the ground by real work, but I think the public debate hasn’t caught up with that fully,” he said.
It’s not a convincing enough argument for proponents of reform, such as Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), who criticized the mayor for hiring “the author of Broken Windows,” a system that Gangi sees as encouraging “quota driven” policing. He said the mayor has only made superficial changes to the NYPD instead of substantive reform that recognizes institutional, racially biased police practices.
“Broken Windows was introduced by Bratton in 1994,” Gangi said. “It continued under a different philosophical framework under Giuliani and Bloomberg, and de Blasio and Bratton have kept their foot on the pedal. It targets mostly people of color for minor infractions that have basically been decriminalized in wealthy communities.”
Kowtowing to the Commissioner
Perhaps the biggest critique of the mayor has been the extent to which he allowed Bratton to drive policing policy, his unwavering loyalty to Bratton, and his willingness to stand behind the commissioner even in controversy.
“There is no question that the mayor has ceded public safety policy to the police commissioner to an unprecedented degree,” said City Council Member Rory Lancman, another member of the public safety committee and a frequent critic of the mayor, “and it is unhealthy and it is inconsistent with the agenda that the mayor promised to New Yorkers he was going to deliver on when he ran.”
Even if de Blasio claims that Bratton’s policies fall squarely within his own mayoral vision for the police department, their incongruent views at times betrayed differing approaches. The mayor has often been placed in the awkward position of trying to explain the disconnect between Bratton’s rhetoric and his own words. For instance, when Bratton referred to rap artists as “basically thugs” following a fatal shooting at a hip hop concert in the city; the time he said women need to use the buddy system to avoid rape; or when he suggested that the killings of two police officers in Dec. 2014 were a “direct spin-off” of protests against police-involved deaths of unarmed black men. Bratton practically doubled down on the last claim recently, following the assassination of five police officers by a lone gunman in Dallas, Texas, by characterizing the Black Lives Matter movement as practicing a “different kind of bigotry” which portrayed all police officers as racist.
At each occasion, de Blasio demurred or gave slight clarifying comments through his own view, while being careful not to criticize Bratton. The mayor often pushes back again against critics, time and again saying that Bratton is a reformer who has overseen significant changes in policing, including the new de-escalation training for officers and stopping arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Dr. Greer said Bratton has been the mayor’s “Achilles Heel.” “I think as long as we have someone like Bratton in charge, [the NYPD] can only be reformed so much,” she said in an interview just before the announcement of Bratton’s departure. “This is someone who’s consistently used racialized and what I might argue is incendiary language referring to blacks and Latinos in New York City. The most high-ranking NYPD official has his own preconceived notions of particular racial groups.”
With O’Neill, Greer said in a follow-up interview that there may be an opportunity, both for the mayor and the new commissioner, to start fresh. “[O’Neill] is not coming in with the same baggage as Bratton did,” said Greer. She said Bratton’s departure was not necessarily a “negative break” and that O’Neill should make efforts to establish a positive tone at the start of his tenure. “He doesn’t want to come in and just be Bratton 2.0,” she said. “He has to think critically of what he wants to do in relation to the mayor, the City Council and the community, and what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.” She also said that the mayor now had a chance assert himself instead of deferring to his commissioner.
Council Member Lancman agrees with that sentiment. He has in the past criticized the pattern of diverging messages from the mayor and Bratton, particularly in light of their recent comments on Black Lives Matter. “I’m beginning to wonder,” he said a few weeks before Bratton’s resignation, “whether it’s just some kind of cynical good cop-bad cop, pardon the metaphor, where the mayor is trying to please both sides of New York by the commissioner taking a more right-leaning view of things and the mayor taking a more left-leaning view of things. But it’s unacceptable. It should be one administration. And the mayor promised policies that are not being effectuated and it is in large part because he seems to not have control over his own police department.”
In the wake of Bratton’s announcement on Tuesday, Lancman told Gotham Gazette the city has an opportunity to talk about real police reform, which Bratton often stifled despite his many accomplishments.
“Chief O’Neill now has to establish his own identity and vision and whether or not he is willing to confront issues of over-policing and unequal policing in communities of color,” Lancman said. “And the mayor has to now take ownership of public safety policy in a way that he hasn’t in the last two-and-a-half years.”
Lancman also sees a particular opportunity for the City Council to push forward an agenda of police reform, including passing the Right to Know Act and his bill making chokeholds illegal, “which were blocked by Commissioner Bratton’s obstinate refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue on these issues.”
New Contract with the Community
In June 2015, de Blasio and Bratton unveiled a new vision for the police department, “One City: Safe and Fair - Everywhere. The plan focused heavily on a model of neighborhood policing, interchangeably called community policing, that would create better relationships while also helping to reduce crime.
“This is a modern, advanced, sophisticated approach to neighborhood policing,” said de Blasio, at the announcement. “That’s going to mean the cop on the beat knows community leaders, knows the clergy, knows the rhythms of the community, the needs of the community, where the problems are. And the community is going to know that officer. And they’re each going to feel a tremendous sense of connection and that they’re in it together.”
The plan involved putting more officers on the street, and on the force, made possible by the hiring of 1,300 new police officers at the behest of the City Council. Council Member Jumaane Williams, an outspoken proponent of police reform who sits on the Council’s Committee on Public Safety, agrees with the model and said he’s seen “tangible positive changes” in the department. But he said the city has yet to address the issue of accountability for erring police officers.
“I am happy that at least this administration is talking to us in a way that didn’t happen before,” he told Gotham Gazette at a recent Council hearing. “That in itself is a plus. But there’s still this notion that any discussion around police reform means you’re anti-police, means you want to somehow handcuff the police and make communities less safe. The people who represent these communities and put these reforms forward are not stupid, they’re not devoid of the pain that’s going on. But I think we’re viewed as people who don’t understand the violence that’s going on there.”
The need for increased accountability is one that others have also expressed. “I support community policing, but to do it cosmetically and still be unaccountable, that’s not changing anything,” said William Burnett, a board member of Picture the Homeless (PTH), an advocacy organization. “That’s just changing appearances, changing optics.”
Burnett believes de Blasio isn’t the reformer he first appeared to be. “I think rhetorically he’s a reformer, but in terms of substantive action, the administration is blocking reform,” he said. “Rhetoric doesn’t have any meaningful impact on people’s lives.”
While he praised the mayor for dedicating substantial resources to dealing with mentally ill people, particularly among the city’s homeless population, Burnett is wary of creating any additional justification for police interactions with homeless people on the streets. He said such interactions have drastically increased and “it has gotten worse.” On May 26, Picture the Homeless and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission alleging that the NYPD had violated the Community Safety Act, which forbids bias-based profiling, by profiling people based on their housing status.
Dr. Greer, of Fordham, said one of de Blasio’s biggest accomplishments is his ability to compromise, and the community policing model was a product of that but also a “missed opportunity.”
“Couldn’t we build community relationships without people carrying weapons walking the neighborhood?” she wondered. “And in communities that feel hyper-surveilled already.”
Resisting the City Council
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has made criminal justice reform a top priority. Council members have proposed wide-ranging legislation to introduce more transparency, scrutiny, and accountability of the police department while also reforming the punitive side of the criminal justice system.
It was the City Council that pushed the mayor and commissioner to add 1,300 new police officers to the force, enabling them to put into effect the new neighborhood policing program. The Council recently passed three bills requiring quarterly reports on use-of-force by officers across the city, which members say will be important transparency tools that aid in oversight and accountability. Two other bills, which would create an early warning system for overly aggressive police officers, have yet to pass.
Perhaps the most significant criminal justice victory for the Council was a package of bills, named the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which provides for the prosecution of low-level offenses in civil court, in effect preventing thousands of people from getting a criminal record each year and virtually decriminalizing behaviors like having an open container of alcohol that have led to many thousands of criminal summonses and outstanding arrest warrants. The NYPD will, however, retain discretion in applying civil or criminal enforcement in those cases, which was a result of pushback from Bratton.
As evidenced by the use-of-force warning system bills, the chokehold bill, the CJRA, and more, de Blasio and Bratton have either stalled or diluted legislation that would create increased oversight of the police department or change law enforcement practices.
“The commissioner has declared dead on arrival every police reform bill that the Council has in its hoppers,” said Lancman, “and the mayor is seemingly giving the commissioner a veto on administration policy as it relates to working with the City Council on police reform.”
Even reforms that have been achieved, like the CJRA, Lancman said, owed to the Council “dragging and forcing” the mayor and commissioner to a point of agreement. (Lancman also criticized the mayor’s opposition to his chokehold bill, which would make the practice illegal except in life-threatening situations. The administration instead chose to adopt the bill’s definition of chokeholds but in effect rolled back an existing departmental restriction on the practice, Lancman says, by making it easier for officers to justify their use.)
Council Member Chaim Deutsch, who has been among a minority of Council members to oppose many of the criminal justice reforms passed through the Council, including the CJRA and the recently passed use-of-force reporting bills, said he was nevertheless discouraged that members of the public safety committee have rarely had a chance to meet with the commissioner to engage in constructive dialogue on police reform.
“I think the mayor’s trying very hard to reform and I think a lot of it should be done through collaboration with the members of the City Council and the police commissioner and the community without forcing any type of legislation,” Deutsch told Gotham Gazette. He said, though, that he has repeatedly asked for a one-on-one meeting with Commissioner Bratton to no avail.
John Jay’s O’Donnell also decried the Council’s multiple attempts to push legislation, which he sees as counterproductive to police performance and ultimately recruitment of talented officers. “The sum total of all the people critiquing, second guessing, and demonizing the cops is going to absolutely depress the interests of the best people in going into the department,” he said.
Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the public safety committee, believes the process has been more collaborative between the Council and NYPD. “I think sometimes what a lot of New Yorkers don’t always understand is that they’re our partners,” she told reporters at a recent hearing. “We don’t always agree, but I will say that under this administration, under the leadership of our speaker, we’ve had an incredible amount of cooperation.”
In the wake of the Bratton and O’Neill announcement, though, Gibson did say that she is looking forward to the shift because she knows O’Neill well and believes that he better understands the Council’s legislative role.
The intricacies of the dynamics among the City Council, the mayor and Bratton’s police department were on display around the Right to Know Act, and the agreement between Bratton and Mark-Viverito that would table a vote on the legislation in exchange for changes to the NYPD patrol guide. The details of this ongoing saga are instructive of the larger question around de Blasio as a police reformer.
The Right to Know Act is aimed directly at the type of issues de Blasio promised to address as a candidate: street stops of civilians by police and the relationships between the two groups. The bills would mandate police officers identify themselves by name, rank, and command when a street stop doesn’t result in an arrest and to get consent from a person before searching them during a street stop without probable cause. Officers would also have to inform a person that they have the right to refuse in such instances.
The bills go one step further toward ending unconstitutional stop-and-frisks and are reflective of guidelines put forth last year by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Bratton publicly derided the bills as another attempt by the Council to meddle in everyday NYPD function. De Blasio cautiously hedged. “There will be a legislative process,” he said at a Nov. 2014 news conference. “In the past, I have raised concerns about that legislation because I want to make sure that we don’t inadvertently undermine the ability of law enforcement to do its job. But there will be a legislative process, for sure.”
That legislative process was pre-empted by compromise and the promise of a revised patrol guide that lays out the rules for consent searches: officers will be retrained to obtain consent for the search of a person, home or vehicle and will be required to provide business cards to people after a search. The deal does not come with the weight of law and the speaker’s decision was seen by many as a backroom deal that not only betrayed the public but also her own members, a majority of whom were in favor of the bills. Advocates directed their ire towards both the speaker and the mayor for undercutting a crucial measure of accountability.
“The recent administration workaround to go around the Right to Know Act shows that [Mayor de Blasio is] committed to a cosmetic fix but not necessarily accountability at the root causes of issues with policing,” said Anthonine Pierre, lead community organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center, a member organization of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition that includes dozens of community advocacy groups.
“Bill de Blasio needs to work with the City Council to get stronger legislation and accountability, to actually make reform that affects people’s lives, not just “reforms” that are politically advantageous to him,” Pierre added.
Yul-San Liem, co-director of Communities United for Police Reform’s justice committee, said the mayor has been “acting like a hypocrite” when it comes to police reform. “We’ve seen no meaningful police reform legislation that’s been passed,” she told Gotham Gazette, shortly after a rally on July 13 outside City Hall to call for a vote on the Right to Know Act. “We’ve seen a bunch of statements from City Hall and from the NYPD saying that things are changed but for those of us that are working in communities that are directly impacted, we know that change is not happening on the ground.
The Police and the Mayor
The irony in the debate is that while many reform advocates feel the mayor hasn’t acted enough, there are those who feel he’s overstepped.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the union of rank-and-file police officers, has targeted him for not being supportive enough of the police force and for creating increasingly dangerous conditions for officers on the ground.
It’s a view shared by Heather Mac Donald, the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Mac Donald rejected the notion that the NYPD is in need of reform and said it is already under multiple levels of civilian oversight. “[The NYPD] is regarded as a paragon across the world of professional, accountable policing,” she said. She insisted that the mayor has “made things a heck of a lot worse,” and characterized his comments regarding a history of racism in policing as “outrageous and ignorant.” She also said the reduction in stop-and-frisk couldn’t be attributed to his policies but were a result of media scrutiny and the federal ruling.
The PBA has multiple problems with the mayor, including ongoing contract negotiations. De Blasio entered office with none of the municipal labor unions working under current contracts and his administration has reached deals with 98% of the workforce. The PBA has not agreed to the same deals the de Blasio administration reached with other uniformed unions, firefighters, sanitation workers, and corrections officers.
Police union leadership and many officers were skeptical of de Blasio when he came into office due to his campaign rhetoric, which many saw as vilifying the police. De Blasio and his allies say the mayor was criticizing departmental policy as dictated by former Mayor Bloomberg and former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, not insulting the members of the department. Nevertheless, de Blasio was seen as more sympathetic to protesters than police after the death of Eric Garner, a black man killed in a chokehold by a white police officer in July 2014, and as offensive when he explained having to “train” his own biracial son to be especially careful in interactions with the police.
When two NYPD officers were murdered in December 2014, not long after de Blasio made the comments about training his son when a grand jury had declined to indict the officer who put Garner in the chokehold, things reached their boiling point. NYPD members turned their backs on de Blasio at the hospital where Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were taken and at their funerals. The PBA president, Pat Lynch, said de Blasio had blood on his hands and officers engaged in what amounted to a (possibly illegal) work stoppage for several weeks.
Bratton has perhaps been the glue holding things together. The outgoing commissioner has defended de Blasio at every turn even while admitting to low officer morale and a “dislike” for de Blasio among cops. In a Thursday interview with Charlie Rose, Bratton acknowledged the “gulf that still exists between my mayor and my cops,” and said it was a source of major frustration for him as he departs the administration.
'Tomorrow is too late'
“Tomorrow is too late,” said Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, at the July 13 Right to Know Act rally at City Hall, just a few days before the two-year anniversary of her son’s death.
The Garner case, perhaps more than other instances of police-involved deaths of people of color, is emblematic the problems people have with police accountability. The officer who placed Garner in the chokehold, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted by a Staten Island grand jury and, two years on, is still the subject of a federal civil rights investigation. He has not been disciplined by the NYPD other than to modify his duty. Commissioner Bratton has said the department’s internal investigation into Pantaleo’s behavior is complete, but that the NYPD is waiting to release its findings and any accompanying consequences until the Justice Department has completed its process. Fingers have been pointed at de Blasio and Bratton for not taking more quick action in the case as well as others involving police use of force.
Those who spoke at the Right to Know Act rally yelled in outrage, questioning whether they could trust the NYPD to implement provisions of the bills through its patrol guide, the same guide that has banned since 1993 the chokehold that killed Garner. “The sense is that if the NYPD says they want to make internal changes in lieu of the City Council passing any laws, they’re just trying to evade accountability,” said Burnett, from Picture the Homeless, also a member of Communities United for Police Reform.
Fordham University’s Greer said the city needs to be “much more swift and severe” when it comes to bad actors in the force, and in training and recruiting officers.
Council Member Deutsch said change needs to “start from the top” of the police department, through department-led change in policy instead of Council-led legislation. Council Member Gibson called it “a big circle that has to work together” on issues of accountability, practices, procedures, and technology.
All agree that the city, the mayor, and the police department have a long way to go in bridging the trust deficit between police and communities. According to public opinion polls, de Blasio’s support among African-Americans remains strong, though many calling for more assertive police reform are people of color. Backing during his re-election bid will in part come down to who the mayor is facing and what their police reform platform entails.
De Blasio and his allies say they are well on their way to making real, lasting police reform progress. Faced with a series of questions over the past two-plus years, de Blasio has repeatedly outlined the steps his administration is taking and said he understands that advocates always want more.
This is true. And strident police reformers are largely disillusioned with the mayor.
“When the city elected de Blasio, a lot of reformers were encouraged given his progressive bonafides and the campaign that he ran,” said PROP director Gangi. “To say that he’s fallen short is a kind characterization.”