New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is “comfortable” with himself. So the city learned during the biggest crisis to hit a New York mayoralty in recent memory. “I’m comfortable with the fact that I’ve always tried to tell the truth and stay true to my values,” de Blasio said in mid January, as police officers across New York City continued a work slowdown that had brought discretionary police activity to a virtual standstill. De Blasio’s breezy self-assurance was revealing but unfortunate, since it was his belief in his own mission as social-justice truth-teller that had pushed the police into revolt in the first place.
William Bratton, New York City police commissioner, has now mobilized the considerable management and disciplinary tools at his disposal to force officers to increase their enforcement activity. But the fault lines that led to the slowdown are still there. Law enforcement in New York may be on the rise for now, but in the long term public safety remains at risk from an activist mayor who sees his base as the anti-police Left.
The New York Police Department slowdown was born of two emotions: fear and anger. And it triggered an outburst of hypocrisy on the part of the political and media elites that was breathtaking to behold.
It began on December 20, 2014, when a thug from Brooklyn assassinated two police officers sitting in their patrol car in a violence-plagued Brooklyn housing project. NYPD cops had been ambushed and assassinated before, but this time felt different, a transit captain observed to me. Those prior assassinations “were carried out by small bands of radicals” who were not operating in a generalized anti-police climate, he said. “Today, the anti-cop atmosphere is at a fever pitch and is fed by elected officials and the media.”
The assassinations of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu was preceded by months of anti-police agitation in New York and nationwide, all dedicated to the absurd proposition that police officers are the biggest threat facing young black men. Riots had twice broken out in Ferguson, Mo.; activists in New York had been allowed by the mayor and police commissioner to shut down major bridges and highways with impunity, to the dismay of the police and vast swaths of the public. Protesters at one Midtown Manhattan march had chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops!” with no word of condemnation from City Hall; at another march commandeering the Brooklyn Bridge, protesters tried to hurl trash cans at officers on the level below them. Two public defenders from the Bronx participated in a rap video extolling cop killings.
Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the killer of Ramos and Liu, had echoed the protesters’ hate-filled rhetoric against the police before gunning the officers down. After the killings, threats of copycat murders poured in to the NYPD; Brinsley was celebrated as a hero in tweets and Facebook postings. In the weeks following the assassinations, a criminal from Pennsylvania tried to run over two Port Authority officers, yelling, “I want to kill cops,” and vandals loosened the lug nuts on police cruisers in hopes of causing them to crash.
The reaction of the department’s 20,000 patrol officers to the killings was anguished and immediate. “All of us have sat with our partner in a patrol car for eight hours being a deterrent,” says a deputy inspector. Officers started texting one other daily: Be on your guard, always carry your service weapon, don’t go out on solo patrol. If one officer is writing a ticket, with his head buried in his summons form or activity log, his partner should keep a lookout.
Particularly worrisome were low-level misdemeanor arrests for offenses such as public urination or turnstile jumping. This so-called broken-windows policing was a frequent target of invective in New York following the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. Garner, who had been picked up about 30 times before for misdemeanor crimes, this time refused to be arrested for illegally selling loose cigarettes. The police brought him to the ground with what many observers deemed a banned chokehold maneuver. The 350-pound asthmatic went into cardiac arrest and died. Garner’s death was horrific and heart-wrenching, but it hardly represented the norm in broken-windows enforcement. In the first half of 2014, the police used force — which can mean simply putting hands on a suspect — in 0.6 percent of all public-order arrests; force was used zero times in the 321 arrests for loose-cigarette sales. Nevertheless, the New York Times, channeling the most hysterical impulses of the anti-police protest movement, declared that the “siege-based tactics” of broken-windows policing were not only responsible for Eric Garner’s death, they were also a prime way that the New York Police Department oppressed minority males.
Such rhetoric, the cops rightly believed, increased the chances that offenders would resist arrest. And if that resistance escalated into violence, and if the arrestee was black, the arresting officer could expect no support from the mayor or the media.
Indeed, following a grand jury’s decision on December 3 not to indict New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the arrest that led to the death of Eric Garner, de Blasio attributed the incident to “centuries of racism.” De Blasio then personalized his racism charge against the NYPD. The mayor worried “every night,” he said, about the “dangers” that his biracial son, Dante, might face from “officers who are paid to protect him.”
At the time, these remarks — based in thorough ignorance of the facts about policing and crime — were a body blow to the rank and file. But after the Ramos and Liu assassinations, carried out in the name of Eric Garner and Ferguson teen Michael Brown, they became a source of visceral rage, as they fed the atmosphere of escalating cop hatred that led to the killings.
They were also the last straw in a series of insulting actions de Blasio had taken since gaining office on a platform of bashing the NYPD. De Blasio’s fawning praise of Al Sharpton as a “blessing for this city [and] a blessing for this nation”; his elevation of Sharpton to City Hall policing adviser; his hiring of Sharpton’s press agent as his wife’s chief of staff, and his stubborn defense of that hire despite her lies on her background check and the “off the pigs” rhetoric spewed by both her convicted-murderer boyfriend and her son — these and other alliances with the anti-police Left convinced officers that the mayor would not support them when they were forced to make controversial split-second decisions on the streets. Better, then, to walk by low-level offenses, especially public-order violations, than to risk their careers and possibly their lives making a discretionary arrest that could be opportunistically turned into a racial flashpoint.
In the weeks after the assassinations, the number of summonses written for misdemeanor and traffic offenses dropped nearly 95 percent citywide and 100 percent in many precincts. A former precinct commander who now works at police headquarters explains what was going on: “We do not want to put ourselves at risk for a City Hall we perceive as illegitimate. Why deliver a [public-safety] utopia to an ingrate who does not support us?”
De Blasio was facing a major crisis of legitimacy. But acknowledging that fact would undercut a darling of the progressive movement and keep attention focused on the assassinations and the slanderous attacks on the police that led up to them. De Blasio himself was the first to throw out an alternative explanation for the slowdown. It was simply a bargaining tactic engineered by union chiefs to get a better contract with the city, he suggested. Bratton echoed this charge on national TV, and the press ran with it. Conor Friedersdorf summed up the conceit on The Atlantic’s website: “What’s unfolding in New York is, at its core, a public-employee union using overheated rhetoric and emotional appeals to rile public employees into insubordination. The implied threat to the city’s elected leadership and electorate is clear: Cede leverage to the police in the course of negotiating labor agreements or risk an armed, organized army rebelling against civilian control.”
This narrative was utterly false. The slowdown was a spontaneous, grassroots reaction to the cop assassinations, born of fear and disgust. It had nothing to do with contract negotiations. Many NYPD officers have spent most of their careers working without a contract, without that fact’s triggering a work slowdown. No union chief brought up a single item of contractual contention in response to the Ramos and Liu assassinations. They did, to be sure, blast de Blasio for his contribution to the anti-cop hysteria that led to the assassinations. “There is blood on many hands, from those who incited violence under the guise of protest all the way to the mayor’s office at City Hall,” the president of the officers’ union, Patrick Lynch, said after the officers’ deaths. It is also true that union delegates in the precincts were telling officers to “give [the bosses] nothing” if an officer felt that a particular intervention on the streets would be unsafe. But the union representatives were as much following their members as leading them.
The funerals for officers Ramos and Liu produced another public-relations fiasco for the mayor. Thousands of officers in the streets for the Ramos funeral, the first held, turned their backs to the video screens during de Blasio’s eulogy. The press usually inflates protest numbers; in this case it reported a few hundred turned backs, whereas eyewitnesses at the scene put the number in the thousands. “I don’t know a single cop who didn’t turn his back,” says a commander.
After the Ramos funeral, Bratton took a risk and circulated a memo urging officers not to repeat their protest at Liu’s funeral. Thousands of cops turned their backs anyway, infuriating the mayor and his commissioner. At a press conference on January 5, de Blasio complained: “I can’t understand why someone would do something like that in a context like that. I think they were disrespectful to the families who had lost a loved one and disrespectful to the people in this city who honor the NYPD.” Bratton denounced the “selfishness” of a “labor action being taken in the middle of a funeral.” If you want to protest, he said, “come put on your uniforms and demonstrate outside City Hall.”
If de Blasio and Bratton were angry, the New York Times was positively apoplectic. “Mr. de Blasio isn’t going to say it,” an editorial thundered, “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.” The Times’s sudden concern for preserving the department’s “hard-earned respect” was hilarious, coming from a paper that has spent the last 15 years lambasting the cops as racist oppressors of minority communities.
The cops and many of their commanders weren’t buying the charge that the back-turning “disrespected” the dead and their families. “Liu and Ramos would have turned their backs as well,” asserts an official at One Police Plaza. “This was how we honored Ramos and Liu: by silently acknowledging that they lost their lives for a mayor who has contempt for officers.” A cop from Brownsville, Brooklyn, argues that Bratton lost credibility in the episode. “Bratton misfired with his request not to turn our backs,” he says. “The cops know that Bratton has to support de Blasio, but where else will we be all together to show our feelings?”
As the slowdown entered its second week, the New York Times called on the Justice Department to investigate the police for civil-rights violations. This was standard fare for the Times, but for one twist: The officers’ alleged civil-rights violations this time consisted of “withdrawing policing from minority communities.” The irony was stupendous. The Times’s usual charge was that the NYPD was overpolicing “minority communities,” particularly with low-level misdemeanor stops and arrests. Yet here it was complaining about a drop-off in misdemeanor enforcement. In fact, the charge of selective depolicing was spurious. The enforcement drop occurred equally across the city — in southern Manhattan precincts as well as in Central Harlem and East Brooklyn.
And it also occurred equally among officers. The nearly 100 percent decline in summonses could not have happened without a universal backing off. Black, Hispanic, white, Asian, and female officers, college graduates and officers with only a high-school diploma — all signaled their unwillingness to engage in proactive policing during a period of heightened threat under a mayor who they believed had repeatedly undermined them. This unanimity signaled yet again how out of touch de Blasio’s administration was with cop culture. City Hall, saturated with identity politics, had assumed that minority officers would support the mayor’s policies. It turns out that most cops identify more with their badge than with the presumed dictates of skin color. Says a newly retired captain: “At least 95 percent of the New York City cops that I know, regardless of ethnicity, despise the mayor.”
Officers were still putting their lives on the line for felonies, however. On January 5, a call came out over the police radio about an armed robbery in progress at a bodega in the South Bronx. Five plainclothes cops from the local precinct who had already ended their tour of duty sped to the scene to apprehend the assailants. One of the robbers, who had posted anti-police diatribes online, opened fire at the officers and shot two of them in the back and chest before hijacking a getaway car at gunpoint. This time, the officers survived.
At first, Bratton sent conflicting messages about whether a policing slowdown was in fact occurring. On January 8, however, he paid a visit to the department’s weekly Compstat meeting, the revolutionary crime-analysis gathering that was pioneered during Bratton’s first tour as NYPD commissioner in the mid 1990s. Bratton usually left the management of Compstat to the chief of department, so his appearance there signaled that something important was afoot. He announced that he expected precinct commanders to get summons and arrest numbers back up. New York’s two-decades-long crime conquest was in jeopardy if the slowdown continued, he said, and he would not allow the city to slide back to the bad old days.
Sergeants and lieutenants, who were ignoring the slowdown at roll calls, would now be under pressure to induce enforcement with moneymaking overtime and other plum assignments as a reward, while withholding such assignments from officers with low activity numbers. This was another irony. De Blasio and Bratton had come to office criticizing former police commissioner Ray Kelly for an allegedly numbers-driven approach to enforcement, but now they were pushing for numbers (albeit from a lower base) themselves.
Summons and arrests started inching back up in mid January, though to nowhere near pre-assassination numbers. Misdemeanor criminal summons were down “only” 70 percent in the week of January 5 compared with the same week in 2014, as opposed to being down nearly 100 percent in the previous weeks. Gun arrests were down “only” 21 percent. Even without the additional pressure from their supervisors, cops would likely have upped their activity on their own, driven by their sense of duty. “Cops don’t want to keep doing this,” says an officer assigned to headquarters.
But the tentative return toward the status quo ante means that the rank and file has compromised in its feud with de Blasio without the mayor’s taking responsibility for his part in that feud. De Blasio has not only refused to apologize for his remarks after the Eric Garner grand-jury decision, he has portrayed himself as the victim in the dispute. He characterized the “blood on many hands” comment of union head Lynch as “totally inappropriate, totally inaccurate, and totally unfair.” Lynch went too far in the heat of the moment, but the idea that de Blasio’s son is at any significant risk from the NYPD is also “totally” false. If Dante de Blasio is at risk, it is from criminals, not the police. In 2013, criminals in New York City committed 1,103 shootings, wounding or killing 1,299 victims. NYPD officers, by contrast, shot 17 people and killed eight, despite having been dispatched 80,000 times to investigate weapons reports and having encountered guns and other weapons in over 30,000 arrests.
Almost all those victims of police shootings had extensive and serious criminal records; most had threatened the officer with deadly force. Whites were far more likely to be shot by the police than blacks when their crime rates are taken into account. Whites were 5 percent of all suspects shot by the police in 2013 though they committed only 2 percent of the city’s shootings — a 250 percent disparity. Blacks were 75 percent of criminal shooters and 79 percent of police-shooting victims — virtual parity. (To put those crime figures in perspective: Blacks make up 23 percent of the city’s population, and whites 35 percent.) Far from being the main threat faced by minority males, the police have been their savior. Ten thousand more minority males would be dead today had the NYPD not brought New York’s homicide rate down 80 percent since the mid 1990s. The question “Is Dante safe?” has become a bitter joke among officers who would like nothing better than to be dispatched on a gun run and find a white perpetrator.
De Blasio has also continued to portray the NYPD as in need of civil-rights correction — from himself, of course. “In 2013, we had a debate in this city about the direction we needed to go in. I believe . . . that what we had to do was build a different kind of approach [to policing], . . . so that was the way forward — that was the right path, the fair path, the safe path for everyone involved,” he said on January 5. Of course no city agency has been more committed to “fairness” than the NYPD, which focuses relentlessly on how to bring to housing projects and other poor neighborhoods the same levels of public safety that New York’s wealthy take for granted.
De Blasio, however, still embraces the idea that the NYPD’s enforcement actions are driven by race, not crime. In an ill-timed slap to the department, he is settling the last outstanding lawsuit against the NYPD for its stop-question-and-frisk practices. Fighting the suit, as the previous mayoral administration did, not only would have been the right thing to do legally, it would have been a perfect opportunity to show his support for the department. The presiding federal judge, Shira Scheindlin, ruled against the department in the previous two stop-question-and-frisk suits before being ignominiously removed from those cases for the appearance of judicial impropriety. Her participation in the third case was ground enough for resistance, even had the lawsuit’s claims not been so ludicrous. The litigation, assisted pro bono by the tony law firm Paul, Weiss, challenged trespass patrols in public housing. The plaintiffs argued preposterously that the police singled out housing projects for enforcement because their residents were black. In fact, the NYPD intensely patrols public housing because it is the most dangerous territory of the city, its stairwells and roofs the regular sites of rape, robbery, and shootings.
Law-abiding residents of housing projects understand that the police are the only thing standing between them and anarchy — something that Paul, Weiss partners, who live in doorman-protected apartment buildings, apparently cannot grasp. “People would be out of control otherwise. We need the police,” says Geraldine Parker, the chairwoman of Staten Island’s council of presidents of public-housing tenants. The proposed settlement of the suit would place new burdens on the ability of officers to intervene against lawless behavior, all in the name of fighting phantom racism within the NYPD. That Bratton acceded to the settlement suggests that he has to carefully marshal his political capital with the mayor.
In the abstract, it would have been useful to demonstrate what a depoliced city — the advocates’ desideratum — looks like. Though the administration denied it, significant categories of crime were already climbing. Shootings were up 82 percent in the week of January 5 though January 11, 2015, compared with the same week during the previous year. In the 28 days leading up to January 11, shootings were up 12 percent over the same period in 2013–14. This 12 percent spike was an improvement over the 28-day period ending January 4, when shootings were up 17 percent over the previous year.
Crime fluctuations are natural, of course, but to put this recent shooting spike into perspective: A 10 percent shooting increase in the first half of 2014, which many observers attributed to the fall-off of pedestrian stops following the litigation against the NYPD’s stop-question-and-frisk policy, had sent the department into a paroxysm of response. It flooded shooting hot spots with officers over the summer, at considerable overtime expense, and managed to cap the outbreak by early fall. Naturally, the victims of all those shootings were the very minorities whom the advocates purport to represent.
In the real world, however, officers don’t enjoy the luxury of “I told you so” moments. Though their protest was understandable, it is a worrisome precedent when a paramilitary organization rebels against its civilian overseers. Ideally, and usually, cops perform their duty regardless of their attitudes toward the civilian authority under which they operate. That this tradition of neutrality cracked in this instance shows how deeply de Blasio violated their trust.
The nightly protests against the NYPD have largely evaporated with the assassinations of officers Ramos and Liu, but the dangerous myth of systemic police racism lives on. New Yorker editor David Remnick, speaking on National Public Radio last week, compared the post-Ferguson movement Black Lives Matter to the unity rally in Paris after the Islamist attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo. A mayor of a city that has been rescued from catastrophic decline by the efforts of its police force might be expected to do everything he can to rebut such anti-police nonsense. Though de Blasio has modulated his rhetoric in recent days, he remains all too “comfortable” with his core worldview.
– Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow of the Manhattan Institute and the author of Are Cops Racist?