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.


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