Why have New York's police officers turned on the mayor?

Police officers turn their backs as Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered his eulogy for slain Police Officer Wenjian Liu on 4 January. Image: Getty.

One of the biggest things on Reddit this week was an image of police officers' backs, punctured by a lone face. The photograph was taken at one of three silent protests New York police have carried out against the city's mayor, Bill de Blasio, since two officers were shot and killed by an anti-police gunman on 20 December. At both funerals, and outside the hospital where the dying men were first taken, officers turned their backs on the mayor. 

The Reddit image itself was a little misleading, in its implication that just one officer was willing to fact the mayor. In fact, other images show that a good quarter of officers did not participate in the protest, and Bill Bratton, the police commissioner, actually urged officers not to protest in a memo sent out before the second funeral. (He's since said those who did have "embarrassed themselves".)

Nonetheless, all this raises a question: why have New York's police turned on the mayor?

Bill de Blasio at an NYPD press conference on 5 January. Image: Getty.

A lack of support

In December, New York flooded with protests after a grand jury deemed the death of Eric Garner lawful. Garner had died while being forcibly restrained by police, and for many, the protests became a focal point for anger about race and police brutality. De Blasio repeatedly expressed sympathy for the protesters, calling police racism "systemic". This was interpreted by many officers, and by the police union, as a lack of support for their work, and the difficult conditions in which it's sometimes done.

The clincher came when de Blasio publicly wondered if his own son, who is mixed-race, was safe from police:

And with Dante, very early on, my son, we used to say, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don't move suddenly, don't reach for your cellphone, because we knew, sadly, there is a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.

Shortly after this statement, the police union announced that the mayor was banned from future funerals of officers killed in the line of duty, due to a "consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve".

Blood on his hands

On 20 December, two police officers were shot by a man who had previously posted anti-police and anti-government material onlin. De Blasio was swiftly blamed for whipping up anti-police sentiment: Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, stood on the steps of the hospital where the officers were taken after the shooting, and said there was “blood on many hands tonight” – but it “starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor”. 

A group of retired NYPD officers hired a plane to broadcast this message up and down the Hudson River on 26 December.

Turning back the backs 

Tension between the police union and City Hall is nothing new. In the 1970s, corruption in the force prompted investigations which exposed misconduct at every level, even as high up as the commissioner. Since then, the NYPD has been reformed, and its officers have won many plaudits: they massively reduced the city's crime rates, and dealt heroically with the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. 

Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign, however, heavily criticised the force's stop and search policy, and this may have contributed to the chain of events leading up to the post-Garner protests. Of course, he may have simply fed off public sentiment – the whole thing's too chicken-and-egg to call – but his critiques have come as part of a much wider collapse of public trust away from the NYPD. 

Over the past two weeks, arrests in NYC have dropped by half, and parking and traffic tickets are down by 90 per cent (union leaders have denied that this is the result of any coordinated action). As a mayor promising liberal police refoms, de Blasio needs to figure out the magic formula: a way to reform the force without alienating officers. Thus far, the omens haven't been good.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.