Who Do You Work For?

Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, speaks during a news conference after the bodies of two fallen NYPD police officers were transported from Woodhull Medical Center, Saturday, Dec. 20, 201... Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, speaks during a news conference after the bodies of two fallen NYPD police officers were transported from Woodhull Medical Center, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, in New York. An armed man walked up to two New York Police Department officers sitting inside a patrol car and opened fire Saturday afternoon, killing one and critically wounding a second before running into a nearby subway station and committing suicide, police said. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) MORE LESS
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Here in New York, over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a turbulent and tragic series of events which might seem far-fetched in its plot line if had it unfolded in a novel. Protests erupted in the aftermath of a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an event which was itself catalyzed and primed by the roiling protests in response to the death of Michael Brown near St Louis. Major street protests followed. And then, as if to bring all the tension to a head, a deranged and violent man perpetrates what can only be called a street execution of two police officers waiting in their car in Bed-Stuy. The fact that the alleged assailant, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, attempted to kill his ex-girlfriend hours earlier in Maryland suggests there was some deeper, more personal impulse to violence and self-destruction behind his rampage. But there is no getting around the fact that at a minimum he grabbed on to the wave of protest against police brutality to provide some logic or rationale for his violent end.

So now we have police and their critics, each with their own righteous aggrievement, thrust together for a collision with no good outcome for anyone involved.

Before the killing of the two officers, actually just a day before, I wrote this post about Pat Lynch, the head of the biggest NYPD police union. By then, Lynch had asked officers to fill out forms requesting that the Mayor not attend their funerals if they died in the line of duty. This was followed by a union meeting in which Lynch appeared to call for a slowdown of police work in response to a lack of “support” and “respect” from the city’s political leaders and went as far as to say de Blasio “is not running the city of New York. He thinks he’s running a fucking revolution.”

As I said at the time, the head of the police union isn’t an active member of the force. So he gets leeway serving officers might not. But still, as the official spokesman of the officers’ labor organization this seemed like really over the top rhetoric. And with that lead-in it probably wasn’t that surprising to see his vitriolic response following the deaths of officers Ramos and Liu in Brooklyn. At a press conference, Lynch didn’t pussy-foot around with talk of rhetoric creating climates of tension or anything like that. He went right for it.

“There’s blood on many hands tonight. Those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what NYPD officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the office of the mayor. Those who allowed this to happen will be held accountable.”

The Sergeants Benevolent Association held back even less.

Saying a political leader has “blood on his hands” in the immediate aftermath of a vicious murder borders on incitement. And that is quite apart from the fact that there’s nothing de Blasio has done that even by the most tortured definition could make that claim make sense.

This was followed by what was first reported as a memo sent out by Lynch’s union calling for ramped down enforcement and blaming the Mayor for forcing the NYPD to “for the first time in a number of years, become a “wartime” police department.” The PBA later denied that the memo was an official PBA memo. The balance of evidence suggests it was circulated among union officials and by union officials but not an official union document.

That evening officers demonstrably turned their backs on de Blasio as he entered the hospital where the stricken police officers were taken after being shot.

The NYPD’s conflict with de Blasio has deep roots. It goes back to the pre-Mayor days with his history as a Democratic pol, one often critical of the NYPD in the context of community-police relations. A major focus of de Blasio’s campaign for Mayor was a push to end the department’s so-called ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy, which was extremely unpopular in the black and Hispanic parts of the city, where de Blasio drew some of his strongest support. But the key moment came in the aftermath of the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer in Eric Garner’s death as de Blasio struggled to thread the needle between community outrage and efforts to head off public disorder and support for the police department which he is ultimately responsible for running as Mayor. In that speech, de Blasio, among many other things, described how even he had felt the need to caution his African-American son to be careful in interactions with the police.

Here’s the key passage from his talk after the Garner decision …

This is profoundly personal for me. I was at the White House the other day, and the president of the United States turned to me, and he met Dante a few months ago, and he said that Dante reminded him of what he looked like as a teenager. And he said, I know you see this crisis through a very personal lens. I said to him I did. Because Chirlane and I 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 had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

This undoubtedly and unsurprisingly hit very close to the bone for many NYPD officers and it crossed a line for many of their union representatives. Yet, it’s hard to believe that anyone not utterly blinkered doesn’t realize that this is a conversation many black parents have with teenage sons all the time. There’s something about the peculiar and particular racial dynamic of this story that gives it a unique flavor – the fact of a liberal white mayor talking about his black son. This is something white liberals cannot talk about from experience and black politicians in executive positions generally do not talk about. And yet, there it was. It was into this context that the wave of protests and then the police murders came in rapid succession.

It is difficult to overstate the degree of shock, grief and outrage a tight knit organization like a major metropolitan police department – based on internal solidarity and mutual protection – will experience in response to murders so wanton and barbaric. Hotheaded reactions and wild rhetoric are not surprising. What is notable, though, is that this escalation began well before the murders of Ramos and Liu.

What stands out to me is that at least the leadership of the city’s police unions operates on the assumption that the Mayor or the city’s political leaders in general need to show reflexive support and defense of the police department or else they go to war with them. Here’s a passage from a piece in Politico by Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush.

That a civic tragedy would so quickly devolve into a full-blown political crisis for the new mayor was testament to the vehemence of anti-de Blasio elements in the police union – and the mayor’s mistaken belief that his 2013 victory gave him the right to shred an old Gotham political playbook that dictated a mayor show deference to the NYPD.

You can’t be big-city mayor and alienate the cops – and that’s just as true now as it was under three-term New York City Mayor Ed Koch, or even a century ago.

“Koch was loved by the cops and always told all his successors that you must have the support of the cops, that the cops can be your best friend. If Koch were alive today that’s what he would tell Bill de Blasio,” said George Arzt, former press secretary to Koch, whose election in 1977 election greatly improved City Hall-police relations.

De Blasio “needs to press reset in his relationship with the cops,” Arzt said.

Good luck with that. The bad blood between the NYPD and de Blasio is nothing new – it dates back to an election campaign centered on de Blasio’s withering criticism of the Bloomberg administration’s stop-and-frisk policy, and his close alliance with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has organized scores of protests targeting cops over their behavior toward urban blacks.

I wince reading that passage. But I do not doubt that it is an accurate portrayal of the de facto rules under which the city operates. In their press conference yesterday, Commissioner Bratton sought to defend Mayor de Blasio or put the rancor between City Hall and the NYPD in context by pointing out that the major city police unions have basically gone to war with every recent mayor. And he’s right, though for different reasons with different mayors.

Here are a series of tweets from yesterday from former NYTer David Firestone.

A week ago, Dylan Scott looked at why police unions are lashing out at critics in ways we haven’t seen in years. It’s a very good piece. I really recommend it. At one level, this is a logical response to a rising tide of protests about police misconduct. But as I wrote at the time, the intensity seems to go well beyond that. I wondered in response to Dylan’s piece whether the political deference police across the country have grown accustomed to is sustainable in an era in which crime has dropped dramatically and people’s sense of personal endangerment has declined.

The “blood on his hands” comments from Lynch and other police union leaders was a graphic and vicious exploitation of the tragedy of the two officers’ death to pursue what is essentially a political feud with the mayor. There’s no other way to put it. I don’t know how representative Lynch’s views are of his membership. But I’m not under any illusion that the head of the police union is greatly out of touch with many of his members. Regardless, the police cannot be an independent force, demanding reflexive institutional support irrespective of perceptions and grievances of at least substantial sections of the population they are sworn to protect. That is neither reasonable nor sustainable.

The protestors who swelled around the city weren’t some kind of alien army. They’re New Yorkers. And the feeling that something deeply wrong happened in the death of Eric Garner was widespread in the city. As a point of reference, polls showed that 64 percent of New Yorkers supported bringing criminal charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The number was substantially lower in Staten Island itself, the most conservative of the five boroughs, where the incident occurred. But even there the number was a substantial 41 percent.

This chart created by 538 acutely captures the latent and now not latent polarization in the city. The folks who support the police and the folks who support Mayor de Blasio do not tend to be the same people. (And to put this chart in perspective, remember: whites, Staten Islanders and Republicans all to varying degrees make up only a minority of New Yorkers.)

As a political reality, no Mayor can ignore that kind of public sentiment. But as a more substantive and integral one, these are the people who employ the NYPD, the people the NYPD is sworn to serve and protect. The idea that police demand reflexive support from the city’s Mayor against large segments of or even the majority of the people they’re sworn to serve and protect simply makes no sense. The people of New York and the NYPD are two groups which by definition must coexist. They can do so well or poorly. But they cannot be rid of each other – even though segments of both groups seem to wish they could.

The conflicts over policing are ones that need to be worked out at the grass roots level in the hard but critical work of police-community relations and at the grander level of city politics. But what has been disturbing to me for weeks, well before this tragedy this weekend, is the way that at least the leadership of the police unions has basically gone to war against the Mayor over breaking even in small ways from lockstep backing of the police department in all cases and at all times. When we hear members of the NYPD union leadership talking about being forced to become a “wartime” police department, who exactly are they going to war with? WTF does that mean? And who is the enemy?

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