Tom McElroy/AP
New York City Mayor Billl de Blasio (2nd l.) stands by as Police Commissioner William Bratton (2nd r.) speaks at a news conference at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx section of New York City Tuesday after two New York City police officers were shot.

New York mayor vs. NYPD: a new chapter in decades-old rift

The rocky relationship between the NYPD and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio echoes past tensions, but there might be paths out of the impasse, experts say.

New York, it would seem, is in a spiral of disrespect.

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that it was disrespectful that members of the New York Police Department turned their backs when he spoke at the funerals of slain police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

New York police, however, might counter that, before those officers were killed, it was disrespectful for the mayor to largely take protesters' side in the aftermath of a grand jury decision not to indict the cop who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, with a chokehold. Perhaps even more disrespectful in their eyes, the mayor admitted that he told his biracial son to "take special care" in encounters with the police.

At a time when police reform is at the top of Mayor de Blasio's agenda, his relations with police could hardly be worse.

Then again, in New York, there's nothing terribly new about that.

"Can you point out to me one mayor who has not been battling with police unions in the last 50 years? Name one," said New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who served in the same role under Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s, at a Dec. 23 news conference. "The experience of this mayor of some cops not liking him, it's nothing new."

Tensions between New York mayors and cops go back decades. But in some ways, the current crisis is subtly different in ways that could make it more solvable, experts say. Today, New York police are angry not so much at de Blasio’s policies as his comments and attitudes. In short, officers don't think the mayor trusts or supports them.  

De Blasio has three years left in his term to make amends, and he has at least begun to change his tone. 

"What you are seeing now is not unordinary in the world of policing, it is the result of heavy unionization," says John DeCarlo, former police chief in Branford, Conn., and associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "But there is a move toward reconciliation. The mayor has already taken steps, given the police force a lot of kudos."

The strongest voice against de Blasio has been a union leader, Patrick Lynch, president of the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, who said that there was "blood on the hands" of mayor's office after the killings of Officers Ramos and Liu. Since then, de Blasio has altered his tone, letting loose a string of supportive tweets thanking the police for their hard work and sacrifice.

But the acrimony is longstanding, both for the de Blasio administration and administrations past.

For example, a petition circulated among some New York City police officers several weeks ago, requesting that de Blasio refrain from attending their funerals should they be killed in the line of duty. It was actually the second of its kind. In 1997, New York police distributed a similar document meant for then-Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir. 

As far back as 1965, Mayor John Lindsay faced a police union backlash after he supported the creation of a civilian complaint review board. The same year, dissatisfied union leaders led a work-slowdown in protest. Today, a rapid drop in the number of arrests and tickets during the past several weeks – by 66 percent and 94 percent respectively – appears to signal the start of a similar slowdown.  

The current friction began even before de Blasio had taken office. His campaign promised to reform the police force, including the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk, in which police had wide latitude to frisk anyone given a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Data showed that stop-and-frisk overwhelmingly targeted blacks and Latinos, and these groups became the core of the coalition that elected de Blasio in 2013.

As mayor, de Blasio has sought to reform stop-and-frisk, but the flashpoints have spread. The influential chief of staff for de Blasio's wife was living with a man who called police "pigs" in a Facebook post. And more recently, de Blasio apparent sympathy with the protesters calling for police reform after the Garner grand jury decision angered police further.

Fixing this relationship while maintaining the support of those calling for reforms will require a delicate balancing act. Commissioner Bratton can help de Blasio, says Professor DeCarlo.

“He has a good, strong partner in Bratton,” he says. “Bratton can navigate these waters better than he could in '94 under Guliani."

Reports of a Dec. 30 meeting between de Blasio and police officials suggest there is more work to be done. The New York Daily News, which has been a strong supporter of the NYPD, reported that de Blasio used the meeting to "counter criticism that he is anti-cop."

What is needed, union leader Mr. Lynch told KQED radio, is an apology from the mayor for what the police saw as a campaign to devalue and demonize them.

Police are doubtful that an apology is coming, according to the Daily News report. But the opportunities for dialogue, at least, will be plentiful.

The efforts to reform stop-and-frisk include remedial steps laid out by a 2013 legal ruling that found a pattern of discrimination in implementation of the NYPD policy. “The results of the stop-and-frisk lawsuit include a requirement for stakeholders to get together to discuss future policy," says Candace McCoy, a professor at John Jay.

"It will be an opportunity for the mayor and the police unions to meet and speak, and that should take place over the next few months."

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