NEW YORK — During three days of unrest in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has sided with the NYPD over protesters — a move many, including longtime supporters, see as cementing the mayor’s transformation from police reformer to police defender.
Faced with a series of videotaped incidents of aggressive police behavior toward protesters who have flooded New York City to decry the police killing of George Floyd, de Blasio has maintained the NYPD “acted appropriately.” He first blamed the chaos on out-of-towners intent on inciting violence. Then he said some of the aggression was coming from New Yorkers operating from an “anarchist” playbook, and he questioned their commitment to the cause of racial justice.
In doing so, his own commitment was called into question by left-leaning politicians, police reform advocates and many of his former aides and allies. It is the latest controversy to highlight the tension for a mayor who won office on a platform of police reform — vowing to end the era of stop and frisk and combat racial disparities in the justice system — and has since grappled with dissent toward him within the NYPD.
“I think he’s living in an alternative universe at this moment in history,” said City Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Public Safety Committee.
“It’s disheartening, because there are a lot of folks who believed in his message,” he added. “They see these statements and they just say, ‘What the hell?’”
De Blasio delivered a defense of the NYPD after three nights of chaotic protests across the five boroughs, where some in the crowd set fire to police vehicles, broke windows and threw objects at officers, and a woman allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail into an occupied police van. Police officers were seen on video driving a vehicle into a throng of protesters, forcefully shoving a young woman to the ground and removing a man’s mask to pepper spray him.
“I’m not going to blame officers who were trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation,” de Blasio said of the cops who plowed SUVs through a barricade and into a crowd of protesters, some of whom were throwing objects at the vehicles.
The mayor softened his stance a bit Sunday morning, saying “I didn’t like what I saw one bit” and promising an investigation of the SUV incident, though he continued to emphasize the culpability of the crowd. Overall, he said police acted with “tremendous restraint.”
But many of his own former staffers and allies were dumbfounded by his position.
“These protests are about America’s failure to honor the lives of Black people. If the law means anything, if our lives mean anything, then driving a police car into a crowd of protesters is a crime. Isn’t that obvious?” de Blasio’s former deputy mayor Richard Buery said in a tweet.
Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, a key supporter of de Blasio’s 2013 campaign who later ran unsuccessfully for governor, said she “cannot begin to understand why our ‘progressive’ Mayor selected this man for commissioner” after Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said he is “extremely proud” of how police officers have responded.
Jonathan Rosen, a longtime adviser to the mayor, reacted to de Blasio’s statements with: “What the fucking fuck?”
“It is sad, baffling and cuts against our values for so many of us who have worked for him and stuck it out with him,” said one current city official, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “The overwhelming emotion of the colleagues who I’ve spoken to in the past 24 hours is sad.”
De Blasio won his seat in 2013 on a platform that repudiated the aggressive policing tactics of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, most notably the widespread use of stop and frisk. He settled a federal lawsuit challenging the practice and reduced its use.
De Blasio also settled a longstanding suit brought by the wrongfully convicted members of the Central Park Five, cut marijuana arrests sharply, equipped officers with body cameras and instituted a neighborhood policing program.
After the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in 2014, and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer involved, the mayor delivered an emotional speech invoking his own biracial son Dante, saying he had to train the young man to be extra careful around police.
To some observers, that speech marked the beginning of the end of de Blasio’s time as a committed police reformer. It infuriated police unions, who accused the mayor of having “blood on [his] hands” after two officers were shot to death later the same month. At the hospital that evening, and again at their funerals, officers turned their backs on de Blasio en masse.
The drama engulfed his young mayoralty in its first major crisis.
“It’s clear to me that the post-traumatic stress from 2014 has impaired the mayor’s perception of reality,” said City Council Member Ritchie Torres. “It clearly was the decisive turning point. Since then, he governs in fear of his own police department.”
Several former aides and advisers who worked for de Blasio during that time said it shattered his confidence in tackling perceived problems within the NYPD.
“Cops turning their back on him at funerals in late 2014 and the aggressive, yet seemingly successful, tactics of [police union president Pat] Lynch and the Police Benevolent Association, unequivocally impacted his strategic approach to these issues and arguably the fate of his mayoralty and how history will view it,” said political consultant Neal Kwatra, who has advised and supported de Blasio throughout his career.
That, coupled with his longstanding fear of a crime spike destroying his mayoralty — as the Crown Heights riots harmed his political mentor, former Mayor David Dinkins — have left him all but paralyzed to embrace more aggressive criminal justice reforms, according to three former aides.
“He fundamentally is caught in a tension between the movement progressive brand he ran on and an inherent cautiousness, an inherent conservatism and a deep deep-rooted fear of a perception that the city could descend into chaos like he saw during the Crown Heights riots under Dinkins,” said one former consultant who advised his 2013 campaign and no longer works for de Blasio.
Rachel Noerdlinger, a former City Hall aide, said de Blasio’s handling of the current protests is a sharp departure from the way he regarded crowds that flooded the streets in the months after Garner’s death. She was tasked with community outreach to quell violence during those demonstrations, which were largely peaceful.
“The mayor’s messaging was more empathetic, and there was a strategic plan in place to guide the community and people that were in pain,” she said. “That is not what has been happening here.”
De Blasio argues the perception that he has moved away from a pro-reform stance is unfair.
On Sunday, he said critics should look at “the history of six-and-a-half years of police reform, nonstop police reform.”
“It is a fundamentally different department in a variety of ways. Neighborhood policing has changed everything. We have a lot more to do but I just am not going to accept the people who seem to forget that we got rid of an unconstitutional broken policy of stop and frisk, that we retrained the entire police force in de-escalation, that we put body cameras on every officer on patrol, that we stopped arresting for marijuana,” de Blasio said. “There is a countless list of reforms. Don’t take away that history.”
But de Blasio has opposed legislation to put tighter regulations on the NYPD, including making it a crime for a police officer to use a chokehold, the maneuver prohibited by NYPD policy that caused Garner’s death.
He deferred to the NYPD on discipline for Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed the Staten Island man, despite widespread pressure during his short-lived presidential campaign this year. The NYPD finally fired Pantaleo last summer, five years after the fatal incident.
The mayor has also clashed with police reform advocates on issues including bail reform and the policing of minor offenses like subway turnstile jumping.
Despite de Blasio’s efforts to walk a careful line and avoid criticizing the NYPD too harshly, he has never won over police unions that remain among his harshest critics. After attacks on police in February, the head of the sergeants union wrote that members of the NYPD “are declaring war” on the mayor.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the mayor was right to defend the policing of the protests, but the shift came too late.
“He’s had to grow up and mature and get a grip and act like a mayor, and it took him six and a half years,” he said. “Ironically, now he’s going to be hated by everybody. He’s going to be hated by the lunatic fringe.”
The mayor said he’s not concerned.
When asked Sunday whether he is worried about angering the NYPD — a possible explanation for his stance on the demonstrations — de Blasio replied, “I do not have fear or I wouldn’t be in this job.”