Can Mayor de Blasio and NYPD chart a path to reconciliation?

As Bill de Blasio begins his second year in office, his administration’s relationship with the nation’s largest police force will remain, for the short term at least, in crisis mode, many observers believe. Is there a way to mend the rifts?

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks from the podium to the New York City Police Academy graduating class in New York. Mayor de Blasio drew heckles and boos along with applause when he addressed graduating police cadets on Monday, two days after thousands of uniformed officers turned their backs on him at a slain policeman's funeral.

It’s hard to imagine that the toxic relationship between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the rank and file of the NYPD could get any worse.

But this could also mean, as many commonly say, it can only get better from here. Perhaps.

As Mayor de Blasio begins his second year in office, his administration’s relationship with the nation’s largest police force will remain, for the short term at least, in crisis mode, many observers believe. The rancor and bitterness many New York police officers viscerally feel toward the mayor runs to their core. 

So is there a way to mend the rifts that have ripped the city’s collective psyche the past few months?

“My initial cynical thought is that nothing smooths over ruffled feathers like a big fat contract,” says Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

Indeed, in addition to all the tumult of 2014, when the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown exploded into a nationwide crisis concerning the relationship between police departments and the minority communities they serve, the NYPD also has been working under a contract that expired in 2010 – a legacy of the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

De Blasio already has negotiated new contracts for other municipal unions, included teachers and other city workers, but the NYPD's largest union representing officers on the streets has been playing hardball, rejecting offers similar to others and opting for binding arbitration instead. But a contract determined by arbitrators would only last for two years, and negotiations would have to begin again near the end of de Blasio's first term.

“I think that obviously it will help an enormous amount to get these contracts done,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “But the last two months have been some of the worst between an administration and the NYPD since probably the early 1990s, so it’s going to be very, very difficult.”

While the relationship remains toxic, the interests of de Blasio and the NYPD are inevitably intertwined, observers say. Both need each other – even though the police unions are aware there’s much more at stake for the long-term success of the first-term mayor.

The most vociferous critic of the mayor has been Patrick Lynch, the president of the NYPD’s largest union, the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, which represents the rank and file. Mr. Lynch, too, is up for reelection to his union post this spring – which, as he negotiates the best possible contract for his members, demands a tough-talking public posture.

He drew criticism after suggesting there was “blood on many hands” at City Hall after a disturbed man vowing revenge for the killing of Eric Garner shot to death Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in their patrol car last month. Lynch and other union leaders also turned their backs on the mayor when he arrived at the hospital to pay his respects to the fallen officers.

This in turn led to the NYPD’s most dramatic public statement against the mayor last month: turning their backs to the mayor when he spoke at Officer Liu’s and Ramos’s recent funerals.

Officers continued expressing their disdain for de Blasio with a dramatic work slowdown. For two weeks, low-level arrests for fare-beating and public drunkenness and such were down by half, while criminal summonses were down more than 90 percent.

The unions, too, have demanded an apology from the mayor for his perceived slights against the NYPD – especially his previously close relationship with the controversial civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as the mayor's comment that he and his wife told their biracial son to be especially careful during any interactions with police, which evoked nothing short of rage.

“An apology would make him look weak, and one school of thought is that the mayor certainly doesn’t need to apologize right now, he needs to stand on his own two feet and show that he is the mayor, that he’s in charge,” says Ms. Zaino. “[Police Commissioner Bill] Bratton has really been doing a magnificent job  – as good as could as could be expected in the last month in trying to hold things together –but the mayor has to step up, especially now.”

Others have suggested that someone else step in to mediate between the NYPD and the de Blasio administration – former President Bill Clinton or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, perhaps.

"While the mayor has respect for the names floated, that's not what is needed to move the ball forward," Phil Walzak, de Blasio’s spokesman, told the Associated Press. "What is really needed is for the dialogue between the two sides to continue."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.