The NYPD vs. De Blasio: Why the Police Should Heed the Mayor’s Words

Rebekah Frank


On July 17, 2014, police officers approached a 43-year-old man named Eric Garner in front of a Tompkinsville, Staten Island beauty supply store and accused him of selling “loosies.” Garner began arguing with them when Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 29, jumped him from behind and put him in a chokehold, a restraining technique that was banned by the New York Police Department in 1993 because it cuts off the flow of blood and oxygen and, when implemented improperly, can cause death. The chokehold brought Garner to the ground. As he repeatedly screamed “I can’t breath,” other officers helped Pantaleo to restrain Garner, putting additional pressure on his chest and abdomen. Garner lost consciousness and remained lying on the sidewalk for seven minutes while the officers awaited the arrival of an ambulance.


Upon arrival, officers and the responding EMTs did not perform CPR on Garner nor did they give him oxygen. Garner was pronounced dead upon arrival at Richmond University Medical Center approximately an hour later. On August 1, 2014, Eric Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by a New York City Medical Examiner. It was the result of the chokehold implemented by Officer Pantaleo and “the compression of [Garner’s] chest and prone positioning during physical restrain by the police.” On August 19, 2015, the District Attorney for Staten Island, Dan Donovan, announced that the case against Officer Pantaleo would go before a grand jury. On December 3, 2014, the grand jury decided not to indict.


In the days immediately following the grand jury decision, and in combination with the lack of indictment in the Michael Brown case, as well as the killings of Brooklyn man Akai Gurley and Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of police, New York City erupted in marches and protests. People took to the streets to register their disgust at the state of policing and the failure of the justice system in the United States, and to demand that all people, regardless of the color of their skin or the job that they hold, are treated equally under the law. It wasn’t asthma and obesity that killed Eric Garner as some people claimed, it was a bigoted and improperly trained police force. It was racism that killed him and racism that kept Daniel Pantaleo from standing trial for his actions.


The claims of racism within New York City policing are not unfounded. In an article from December 5, 2014, S.E. Smith of The Daily Dot lays out recent incidents that add credence to the claim. In the piece Smith states that “police likely would not have harassed [Garner] in the first place, they would not have used such aggressive tactics to arrest him, and they would have rendered medical aid immediately, rather than standing around while he wheezed that he couldn’t breath” if he weren’t a black man. The NYPD has been accused of racial profiling in the past – the New York City Council introduced a bill under the Bloomberg administration that would allow New Yorkers to sue the NYPD if they felt they had been stopped based on their religion, race or sexual orientation. This was partially due to a report that found that of the 533,042 stops under stop-and-frisk made in 2012, 87 percent were of blacks or Latinos. In 2013, a judge banned the use of stop-and-frisk in New York City. This past September, police officers in a patrol car in Park Slope, Brooklyn used their loudspeakers to tell a group of black teenagers to “get out of the neighborhood.”


Smith’s conclusions are shared by many citizens of New York City and were voiced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in a press conference following the lack of indictment and the citywide protests. During the press conference, Mayor de Blasio said this case made him think about his son, Dante, who is biracial. He said that he and his wife Chirlane “have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face. A good young man, a law-abiding young man, who would never think to do anything wrong, and yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face – we’ve literally had to train him, as families have all over this cities for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter with the police officers who are there to protect him.”


What Mayor de Blasio was saying was that he and his wife had to train their own son to be more careful than if he was white because of the threat police officers have historically posed to people, and specifically men, of color. He continued by saying that “we’re not just dealing with a problem in 2014, we’re not dealing with years of racism leading up to it, or decades of racism – we are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day. That is how profound the crisis is. And that is how fundamental the task at hand is, to turn from that history and to make a change that is profound and lasting.” He did not place the blame solely on current police officers or on police officers in general. Instead it is a systemic, society-side problem that we as a country need to address.


The reaction from the police department to de Blasio’s speech was swift. Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said that police officers felt that they were “thrown under the bus.” He believed that de Blasio told New Yorkers to teach their kids “that they should be afraid of New York City police officers.” In reality, he continued, “our city is safe because of police officers. All of our sons and daughters walk the streets in safety because of police officers. They should be afraid of criminals. That’s what we should be teaching.” He did not address what threat to public safety a person like Eric Garner might pose nor what the outsized physical reaction used by police to that perceived threat communicated to the citizens of New York. What his comments did do was create a very clear division between the NYPD and the mayor’s office. This division was especially poignant when police officers, against the express wishes of Police Chief William Bratton, turned their backs to the mayor at the funerals of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos who were killed on December, 20 by a mentally ill man who specifically targeted the officers.



This reaction by the officers was not only disrespectful to Mayor de Blasio, but also to the fallen officers and their families. It also, according to the New York Times, “showed a willingness by the rank and file to disregard the leadership” which does not demonstrate unity within the department. It also communicated the feeling among many police officers that Mayor de Blasio’s speech was somehow to blame for the deaths of Ramos and Liu.


The turned backs, according to Edward D. Mullins, president of the sergeants union, represented “a real problem that exists between the police and City Hall.” Tom Burke, who retired form the force in 2007 after 22 years of active duty, said that Mayor de Blasio has been “a cop hater since before he got elected mayor.” Burke believed the officers would never forgive de Blasio for his words or for the deaths of Liu and Ramos and agreed with Pat Lynch who, following the deaths of the officers, stated that “there’s blood on many hands tonight. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.” Relations between the mayor and the department have become so strained that former NYC police commissioner Ray Kelley said that de Blasio “probably needs an intermediary to go between himself and the [police] unons, maybe a religious leader.”


It is true that de Blasio has always been committed to police reform – it was a central focus of his mayoral campaign. He has been incredibly vocal about his belief that the police unfairly target minority groups and has been a critic of stop-and-frisk. Unfortunately his beliefs, supported by many in New York City and beyond, combined with actions by the NYPD, have created an unsafe environment in the city. Following the deaths of Ramos and Liu, police officers not only turned their backs on the mayor but also entered into what could only be described as a work stoppage, with arrests down 66 percent and traffic tickets and summonses for minor offenses down by 94 percent. According to the New York Post’s communication with the police, “safety concerns were the main reason for the drop off in police activity” but the source added “that some cops were mounting an undeclared slowdown in protest of de Blasio’s response to the non-indictment in the police chokehold death of Eric Garner.”


The New York Police Department and the mayor’s office do have a history of clashing. Former Mayor David Dinkins was, in 1992, the subject of a rally called by the Policeman’s Benevolence Association who were upset that Mayor Dinkins called for the creation of an agency to probe allegations of police misconduct. In 1997, officers organized a march in protest of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani because of a pay dispute. The union used that dispute as part of the reason when, 10 years later, it decided not to support his bid for the presidency.


And then there was Mayor Michael Bloomberg whose home was picketed by the police union in 2004 in response to pay and contract disputes. This public rift between the department and City Hall, although not unique to the de Blasio administration, does seem especially contentious, rivaled only by the rift between the NYPD and Dinkins. Interestingly, in both cases the mayor angered the police by bringing up troubling statistics and trying to create ways to work with the NYPD to make their policing more just and less dangerous. Constant reflection and improvements to methods and approaches by the police is the only way to increase the safety of both the citizens of New York as well as the police officers themselves. No person, or organization, is perfect and by refusing to acknowledge areas where the department can improve itself, tragedies such as the ones that claimed the lives of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos will continue to occur. I


It is, of course, impossible to know at this point whether the current rift has caused the city at large to be less safe as there are many other factors at play. But it does seem likely that a decreased police presence will result in an increase in crime, and specifically violent crime, as we enter into the warmer months of the year. What does seem clear, however, is that the police department should heed de Blasio’s words and work to police all communities equally, making it safer for people of all backgrounds. The current approach certainly does not make the city safer for the Eric Garners and the Akai Gurleys of the world and until they are as safe as a white man in Brooklyn Heights there is work to be done.



Author Bio:

Rebekah Frank is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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