Set to a backdrop of ongoing protests, New York City’s police union and mayor are publicly at odds over the grand jury’s decision not to charge officer Daniel Pantaleo in the video-taped homicide of Eric Garner. Elected on a progressive platform, Mayor Bill de Blasio heads not only the country’s largest city but its policing laboratory. New York City is where policies like COMPSTAT and "broken windows" got their start. De Blasio also has a bi-racial son with his African-American wife, Chirlane McCray. And it’s partly from that personal lens that de Blasio framed his 20-minute response to the grand jury’s decision at a press conference this Wednesday. The result is a speech that whatever its limits, strikes an unprecedented note of empathy for the fear felt by black and brown families:
Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face. He’s a good young man, law abiding young man who never would think to do anything wrong. And yet because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers–who are there to protect him. … For so many of our young people there’s a fear and for so many of our families there’s a fear. So I’ve had to worry over the years. Chirlane’s had to worry, "Is Dante safe?" each night. There’re so many families in the city who feel that each and every night: "Is my child safe?" And not just from the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods but, are they safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors. That’s reality. …
You’ve heard in so many places, people of all backgrounds utter the same basic phrase. They’ve said, black lives matter. And they said it because it had to be said. It’s a phrase…that should be self-evident. But our history sadly requires us to say, black lives matter.
Notwithstanding that it’s the present that necessitates the phrase, #BlackLivesMatter, "the people" was another powerful theme of de Blasio’s speech. His insistence that change comes not from city hall or police leadership but "people who’ve demanded it," make it worth the listen (see clip above).
While de Blasio re-emphasized his faith in commissioner William Bratton (known for implementing COMPSTAT and "broken windows"), he displeased at least another key sector of police leadership. Cops, according to their union, felt, "thrown under the bus." Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association:
"[Mayor de Blasio] spoke about, ‘we have to teach our children that their interaction with the police and that they should be afraid of New York City police officers.’ That’s not true," Lynch said. "We have to teach our children, our sons and our daughters, no matter what they look like, to respect New York City police officers, teach them to comply with New York City police officers even if they think it’s unjust."
The war of words in New York City is the latest pushback from police unions feeling under siege–and it’s serving to draw attention to their roles in advancing accountability and keeping abusive cops on the street. Asked about race and policing, Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police says, "it’s not an issue of race":
The FOP’s been on record over the last 15 years denouncing racial profiling. It’s not a legitimate police practice; it’s not taught in any police academy in the country. That doesn’t mean there aren’t officers who have racial bias. But any cop who demonstrates any form of racial bias should be put off the job, and we support that.
The one topic that’s not being discussed and is never discussed is [that] we don’t believe it’s an issue of race. We believe it’s an issue of poverty. Communities that have distrust of law enforcement — it’s because law enforcement is the only part of government they ever see. They’re poor; infant mortality rates are higher; single-family homes are higher; unemployment is higher; people don’t live as long as the average American. And that is the issue in every community in America that we police.