Do the police serve the city or are they a law unto themselves? This is an issue of concern throughout the country but it has come into crisp focus in New York.
The conflict in New York City spurred by the death of Eric Garner and the failure of a Staten Island grand jury to indict the police officer who choked him to death; followed by the killing of two police officers, Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, by a deranged person has sharpened the conflict over policing in New York. The NYPD is trying to bully Mayor Bill de Blasio as they have done with almost all previous mayors. It is time for the mayor and city to stand up to police bullying.
The Deaths of Two Police Bring Out Police Mis-Leadership
Regarding the deaths of two police officer Andy Cush wrote in Gawker: “The tragedy was an immediate and clarifying humanization of a profession whose incompetents and villains had dominated the news.” Unfortunately, Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, ruined the opportunity for humanizing the NYPD when he attacked the mayor, claiming he had “blood on his hands” and blamed the #BlackLivesMatter protests for the deaths. This patently false extreme rhetoric, divided people rather than uniting them.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement, had a very different reaction, it expressed remorse over the deaths of the police in multiple statements. Activists participated in an impromptu candlelight silent march to show their sadness at the deaths. And, one of Eric Garner’s daughters visited with the family of Officer Ramos and laid flowers at the memorial of the two officers. While protesters did not heed the urging of Mayor de Blasio to stop protesting, they showed that their movement was about justice, not about revenge; about nonviolence not more violence.
The police also did not listen to the mayor’s request to stop protests and made divisions in the city worse when they showed disrespect for Mayor de Blasio at the funerals of the officers as well as at the hospital after the shooting and at a recent graduation of cadets. Turning their backs and booing a mayor who had tried to calm the situation showed petulance on the part of police and disrespect for the officers.
A backlash is growing against the police for their actions. The New York Times wrote a strong editorial denouncing the police actions:
“Mr. de Blasio isn’t going to say it, but somebody has to: With these acts of passive-aggressive contempt and self-pity, many New York police officers, led by their union, are squandering the department’s credibility, defacing its reputation, shredding its hard-earned respect. They have taken the most grave and solemn of civic moments — a funeral of a fallen colleague — and hijacked it for their own petty look-at-us gesture. In doing so, they also turned their backs on Mr. Ramos’s widow and her two young sons, and others in that grief-struck family. . .
“But none of those grievances can justify the snarling sense of victimhood that seems to be motivating the anti-de Blasio campaign — the belief that the department is never wrong, that it never needs redirection or reform, only reverence. This is the view peddled by union officials like Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — that cops are an ethically impeccable force with their own priorities and codes of behavior, accountable only to themselves, and whose reflexive defiance in the face of valid criticism is somehow normal.”
Another police tactic was to stop enforcing the law. Lynch commanded his union members to institute a slowdown – a virtual work stoppage. Matt Taibbi describes this in Rolling Stone writing that minor “arrests have dropped off a staggering 94 percent, with overall arrests plunging 66 percent. If you’re wondering exactly what that means, the New York Post is reporting that the protesting police have decided to make arrests ‘only when they have to.’ (Let that sink in for a moment. Seriously, take 10 or 15 seconds).”
Taibbi goes on to describe how arresting people in poor communities is really an alternative to raising taxes or cutting budgets. We’ve seen this same type of “fundraising” in Ferguson, Missouri where it is incredibly abusive. No doubt this is common, but unreported, throughout much of the nation. The idea that police should “only make arrests when they have to” is a good police policy as there is an over-reliance on arrests and they are often for actions where a warning would be better than an arrest.
Worse, Lynch promised two different standards for “friends” and “enemies” leading the usually pro-police NY Daily News to editorialize:
“But urging courtesy for ‘our friends’ and ‘extreme discretion’ for ‘our enemies’ while on the job suggests two standards of enforcement in a city that counts on the police for equal protection.”
This threat shows Lynch does not understand what equal protection under the law means and highlights the root cause problem with the NYPD. The harsh treatment of communities of color has its foundation in unequal application of the laws.
When the funeral of Officer Liu was held on January 3rd, Chief Bratton urged the police not to show disrespect for Officer Liu by using his memorial service as a reason to protest. Bratton correctly pointed out that “The country’s consciousness of that funeral has focused on an act of disrespect shown by a fraction of those…officers. . . All officers were painted by it, and it stole the valor, honor, and attention that rightfully belonged to the memory of detective Rafael Ramos’s life and service.” At Officer Liu’s wake the police did not protest the mayor when he visited to pay his respects, in fact they saluted. But, a much larger group continued their protests, turning their backs on the mayor when he spoke at the funeral.
Can the Police and Political Leadership Face the Real Problem of Police Abuse?
Hopefully, now that the funerals are behind us, an honest conversation about how to improve relations between police and the communities they serve, especially communities of color, can begin. There are long-term problems that need to be faced.
Mayor de Blasio won election in part because he stood against abusive police behavior, in particular the ‘stop and frisk’ program that resulted in 4.4 million people being stopped and frisked from 2004-2008, 80% of whom were African American and Latino. The record in the litigation showed the vast majority of these people were stopped and searched for no reason.
A federal district court judge found that the stop and frisk program was unconstitutional and described the leadership of the city as showing “deliberate indifference” to the illegally, racially-based searches. De Blasio was right to talk about this problem as part of his campaign. He was also right to drop the appeal of the court decision and begin to implement reforms when he became mayor.
Bill de Blasio’s bi-racial son looks African American, so like every other family in New York they had to confront the reality of how police treat youth from communities of color. De Blasio described how he and his wife handled it:
“Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face. A good young man, 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.”
It would have been irresponsible for de Blasio not to have had these discussions with his son. But, the fact that he did angered the police union. Sadly, the union needs to reflect – why do families feel a need to have that difficult conversation? Do they want police to be feared by people and hated in communities?
What people like Patrick Lynch don’t like about these actions by de Blasio is that they are based on truthful experiences with policing in New York.
What people like Patrick Lynch don’t like about these actions by de Blasio is that they are based on truthful experiences with policing in New York. The reality about the record of abusive police behavior is something Lynch does not want to discuss. If police are going to have decent relationships with communities and with the people of New York, these truths need to be faced.
The reality of police abuse is also seen in the immense settlements of law suits against the NYPD. In the five year period beginning on January 1, 2009 the city has paid $400 million in settlements of civil rights suits against the NYPD. Almost all the lawsuits filed ended with the city paying money, only in a small percentage was their no money paid by the city. There are still lawsuits pending against the NYPD from this period. One mass false arrest of 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge may break all records.
De Blasio is going to have to show strength to stand up to the police union. They have been bullies against almost every mayor. Reports are that the NYPD is now working with the Republican Party to use these issues to remove de Blasio and replace him with a friendly Republican. They are planning protests to keep the issue alive.
Not only does de Blasio need to be strong but other leaders in New York must stand with him against police abuse. In August the city’s largest union the United Federation of Teachers, representing 200,000 teachers, President Michael Mulgrew was subject to an attack by Lynch because he co-sponsored a march in Staten Island protesting the killing of Eric Garner. The health workers union, SEIU, which also has 200,000 members, also co-sponsored that march. Labor activist Jonathan Tisani wrote in the NY Daily News in response to Lynch’s recent antics that labor must reject the views of Lynch as they are “unconscionable” further they threaten “to undermine labor in the months and years ahead.” He urges unions to speak out against the “venom” of Patrick Lynch.
There has been some commentary in the media as well as editorials in major papers criticizing the police. More is needed. Civic leaders, business leaders and religious leaders must also stand up. This is a key moment in history to confront the long-term problem of NYPD abuse. It will take the city to isolate those police leaders who continue to deny there is a problem. Once this occurs other members of the NYPD will come forward supporting change.
Support for the police in polling of New Yorkers is usually extremely high with 70% saying the do a good or excellent job. But recent polls show a dramatic decline in public support for the police. A December 12 New York Times/Siena Research Institute poll found only 44% of voters believe the NYPD is doing an “excellent” or “good job;” among black voters, that figure was just 22%. The view of African Americans is understood as 64% of New Yorkers believe that people of color are not treated fairly by New York City’s criminal justice system. The police are losing the support of the public.
Envision The Future, Then Create It
What kind of relationship do communities and individuals want to have with the police? Do police want the respect of the communities and people they serve? How does a city create a vision for the type of policing it wants to see and then achieve it? Commissioner Bratton helped to start the type of conversation that is needed when he spoke at the funeral of Officer Ramos:
“The police, the people who are angry at the police, the people who support us but want us to be better, even a madman who assassinated two men because all he could see was two uniforms, even though they were so much more. We don’t see each other. If we can learn to see each other, to see that our cops are people like Officer Ramos and Officer Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them, too. If we can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a department. We’ll heal as a city. We’ll heal as a country.”
Unfortunately, the NYPD union leadership seems committed to making things worse. Patrick Lynch has threatened “When these funerals are over, those responsible will be called on the carpet and held accountable.” What does that mean? Is he threatening a police coup of city government? Leaked emails and comments in chat rooms show that theNYPD is working with GOP politicians to continue to escalate protests in order to remove de Blasio from office.
De Blasio should not back down. The public is with the mayor because they know there are serious problems within the NYPD. He should escalate his efforts for positive police reforms.
It is time to talk about an era of community control of policing where structures are put in place that give the community power in their relationship with police. There should be the ability to act pre-emptively when police officers harass or threaten or when they show racism against groups of people. Such police should be removed from their positions. Civilian review boards need to be given the authority to indict police officers who commit crimes, not merely make recommendations to police.
Police need to be empowered so they do not fear speaking up when they see misbehavior by their colleagues. Cops who believe in equal justice who recognize that serving the community is their function should be encouraged.
All sorts of other policies can fit within this framework, e.g. police wearing cameras, demilitarizing the police, but the essence needs to be to change the power structure so the police serve the community, the police culture shifts and people are given greater power in their relationship with police.
These changes seem impossible now, but they are achievable. The majority of the public and city leaders know there are serious problems among some in the NYPD. The facts are on the side of reform. The law is on the side of reform. The people are mobilized. This is the time to make the impossible, inevitable and create a new kind of policing a reality.
Attorney General of the Green Shadow Cabinet