NYPD told not to turn backs on mayor again: Will ‘cold, steely silence’ prevail?

After hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio during the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos last weekend, Police Commissioner William Bratton on Saturday urged officers to refrain from a similar tactic at Sunday’s funeral for Officer Wenjian Liu.

John Minchillo/AP
Police officers gather before the wake of New York Police Department Officer Wenjian Liu at Aievoli Funeral Home, Saturday in Brooklyn. Liu and his partner, Officer Rafael Ramos, were killed Dec. 20, as they sat in their patrol car on a Brooklyn street. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, later killed himself.

Will NYPD officers attending a slain comrade’s funeral on Sunday once again turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio or offer him, as one union head has suggested, “cold, steely silence?”

After hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs on Mr. de Blasio during the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos last weekend, Police Commissioner William Bratton on Saturday urged officers to refrain from a similar tactic at Sunday’s funeral for Officer Wenjian Liu.

“I issue no mandates and I make no threats of discipline,” Mr. Bratton wrote in a memo to be read at precinct roll calls throughout the city. “But I remind you that when you don the uniform of this department, you are bound by the tradition, honor, and decency that go with it.”

“A hero’s funeral is about grieving, not grievance,” Bratton said.

The two officers were ambushed and murdered on Dec. 20 by a troubled man named Ismaayil Brinsley, who had expressed anti-police views and a desire for revenge tied to the national debate over the high-profile death of Eric Garner. Mr. Brinsley killed himself shortly after the shootings.

The shootings further jarred an already emotional standoff between de Blasio and the NYPD over the death of State Island man Eric Garner and the refusal by a grand jury to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

De Blasio has angered the rank and file by sitting next to controversial civil rights advocate Rev. Al Sharpton during meetings and by comments he made to his biracial son, Dante, that he should take “special care” around police officers.

Moreover, de Blasio called the grand jury decision “a national moment of grief ... [and] pain.” He continued: “We are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day. That is how profound the crisis is.”

Police union officials say such comments by de Blasio have helped foster an anti-police atmosphere. One union head, Pat Lynch, said the mayor had “blood on his hands” after the deaths of Ramos and Liu.

But the funeral protest, which police say was impromptu and involved a few hundred out of thousands present, also struck a discordant note with the American public, Bratton said in his memo.

“All officers were painted by [an act of disrespect], and it stole the valor, honor and attention that rightfully belonged to the memory of detective Rafael Ramos’s life and service,” Bratton wrote. “That was not the intent, I know. But it was the result.”

Reaction among officers to Bratton’s missive was mixed. Ed Mullins, who is head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, told the New York Post: “I remind my members of their First Amendment rights of expression. It’s your choice. Choose what makes sense to you.”

NYPD Captains Endowment Association president Roy Richter urged cops to heed Bratton’s words – to a point.

At a funeral, “the appropriate protest is not … turning away from mourners … but rather cold, steely silence,” he told the Post.

The comments underscore just how personal the national debate over police conduct has become in New York City.

In fact, the back and forth between police and City Hall has moved beyond rhetoric and into how the city is being policed.

The number of arrests in the city plummeted by 66 percent after the Dec. 20 shooting of Officers Ramos and Liu. Enforcement for low-level offenses, such as traffic citations, parking tickets, and public drinking and urination, had dropped by 92 to 94 percent.

Some officers told the New York Post that the slowdown was tied to a feeling of betrayal by de Blasio and concerns for their own safety.

An emergency meeting between de Blasio and five union presidents did not result in any immediate de-escalation of tensions.

The protests, taken together with the work slowdown, have deepened a debate that touches as much on police tactics as institutional biases around race and class. 

Indeed, the slowdown in particular offers an ironic twist, writes Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, on “a highly specific debate over a very resolvable controversy not about police as people, but about how police are deployed.”

The actions by some NYPD officers cut to some of the central dilemmas around so-called quality-of-life, or broken windows, policing, especially given how police, critics contend, are often asked to carry out anti-crime policies where residents of poor, minority neighborhoods take the brunt.

"Most people, and police most of all, agree that the best use of police officers is police work," writes Mr. Taibbi. Police officers “shouldn’t be collecting backdoor taxes [such as parking violations] because politicians are too cowardly to raise them, and they shouldn’t be preemptively busting people in poor neighborhoods because voters don’t have the patience to figure out some other way to deal with our dying cities.”

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