Elizabeth Shafiroff/Reuters
A woman demanding justice for the death of Eric Garner holds a sign while shouting slogans from behind police barricades separating protesters from the Annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, New York Wednesday.

Amid anger over Eric Garner, a unique moment for change in NYPD

To some extent, the New York Police Department has already implemented some changes, the mayor and others note. But the Eric Garner case, as well as Ferguson, point to the challenges ahead.

With a rare display of raw emotion, New York leaders expressed shock and sorrow after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the white police officer whose headlock takedown contributed to the death of Eric Garner this summer.

There were expressions of anger and outrage as well, of course. But after a second grand jury in two weeks declined to hand down indictments for two white police officers who killed two black men, both New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s congressional delegation sounded a measure of tragedy’s ironic counterpart: hope.

“You can feel the emotion in us, not as politicians, as legislators, but as human beings,” said Congressman Charles Rangel (D) as he stood with seven other representatives from New York during a press conference Wednesday in the nation’s capital.  

Even while the rancorous debate over the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., still simmers, the somber tone Wednesday could signal a unique moment, many leaders say: It could be the time when one of America’s largest and most innovative police forces begins to address the national crisis that has laid bare the longstanding tense relationship between minorities and law enforcement.

“We ... have an opportunity here in this tragedy to continue this conversation and turn it into more than a conversation, and into action and change,” said Congressman Joseph Crowley (D), a representative of sections of the Bronx and Queens, during a press conference in Washington Wednesday. “Not only in Missouri or in Florida or in New York City, but our entire country,” continued Representative Crawley, who noted that his father and grandfather were proud New York City police officers.

That sentiment was echoed by many New York City cops, who, though wary and feeling “beaten down” under accusations of racism and callous indifference toward the minority communities they police, also see a hope for dialogue and change.

“There is an opportunity right now in front of everyone, right up to the White House,” says Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association and a 30-year veteran of the New York Police Department. “There’s an opportunity for good leadership to come to the top and build bridges, based on these high-profile incidents, to create an understanding of police and community.”

It’s an opportunity, too, with a certain sort of symmetry. Twenty years ago, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani teamed with Police Commissioner William Bratton to address the city’s rampant – though already falling – levels of crime with innovative and influential new methods of policing.

Now, with crime at unheard-of record lows, Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton are teaming to address the rifts with new ideas and innovative practices – perhaps again with the opportunity to reshape the nature of American policing.

Some changes are already taking place.

They’ve dramatically reduced the number of times the controversial practice of “stop and frisk” has been used, and crime has kept falling. They’re decreasing the number of low-level marijuana arrests – of which the vast majority, some 85 percent, have fallen on blacks and Latinos.

And for the first time in the city’s history, the NYPD is requiring its officers to undergo additional tactical training each year. These are “refresher courses,” says Bratton, who remains well respected among the rank and file of the NYPD. The training will focus on de-escalating encounters and treating all citizens with respect, even during arrests.

“Here in this city, change is happening even in this moment when people are feeling pain and frustration and confusion. Change is happening right now,” said de Blasio, who gave one of the most emotional speeches of his tenure so far at a press conference in Staten Island.

“Change is happening because the people willed it to happen,” de Blasio continued, as he stood with community leaders. “People believe the broken policy of stop-and-frisk had to end, and it has ended. The people believed there were too many young people of color arrested and saddled with a record for the rest of their lives simply for possession of a small amount of marijuana, and that policy has been changed.”

Still, challenges remain myriad – especially with the ongoing mistrust that the NYPD has of the mayor and his close ally, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is persona non grata with the department.

“There is an understanding that this is a cultural problem, not a problem that is going to be fixed by changing one policy, or by a stroke of a pen, or any of the other things that we tend to expect from chief executives,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan.

“So many white liberals thought that ending stop-and-frisk would solve the problem,” he continues. “But the reactions to Garner – as well as Ferguson – made it clear the problem was much deeper, the whole range of police and minority interaction, and that they weren’t going to be solved by throwing a switch.”

De Blasio himself said the problems of 2014 are deep-seated, portending a difficult journey ahead. Many of the profound problems between police and minority communities, he suggested, stem from centuries of racism.

Such comments continue to anger police, who doubt his credibility as a leader as well as his ability to heal the current rifts.

“I think that the mayor is stepping off base when he begins to label certain issues racist issues,” Sergeant Mullins says.

Police were out in full force after the grand jury decision Wednesday, which was supposed to be a festive evening in New York City, with the traditional lighting of the iconic Rockefeller Christmas tree. Indeed, thousands of revelers came for the annual tradition of cheer, and wide-eyed shoppers passed by the city’s famous department-store holiday window displays.

But in a way perhaps unique to the sprawling cacophony of Manhattan, the revelry included thousands of sign-carrying protesters, escorted by a phalanx of grim-faced police officers, many on horseback or enclosed enforcement scooters.

Still, Midtown was bright and bustling, sectioned off with crowd-controlling barriers at every turn, even as tourists and late-working New Yorkers in suits glanced over to watch the parade of slogan-chanting youths. “No Justice, no peace, no racist police,” was one common refrain.

“The opportunity present right now is one in which the direction of the nation can be changed for the better,” Mullins says. “But to do so, by saying that the police are all racist and the police are the bad guys, is not going to be productive: It’s not going to be fair.”

At the very least, Ferguson and the Garner case are presenting lessons for the nation to consider.

“I don’t like saying this is a learning moment or something of that sort, but in fact I think that a lot of political elites learned something from all of this [conflict] the past few months,” says Sherrill.

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