Bill Bratton has a lot on his mind lately.
After a fatal shooting outside a T.I. concert last night, the NYPD commissioner talked in a radio interview about the “crazy world of these so-called rap artists who are basically thugs that basically celebrate violence they did all their lives.” Yesterday, he described an “epidemic” in the city and across the country of civilians filming arrests in progress, arguing that they “are creating circumstances that are dangerous for the public and dangerous for the police officers,” and could lead to “mob rule.” And on Sunday, he argued that pot legalization is a bad idea because “here in New York City most of the violence we see – violence around drug trafficking – is involving marijuana.”
Each of these arguments seems designed to encourage fealty to law enforcement at a time when plenty of New Yorkers distrust the cops, and none of them stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. If rappers are thugs because of violence that happened at one concert, what do we call the NYPD cops who got into a bench-clearing brawl with FDNY firefighters at a charity football game just days before, or the chief who is accused in a lawsuit of beating a female officer with whom he was having an affair, or the officers who killed Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, and Ramarley Graham?
If more New Yorkers are filming the police, it is only in response to the staggering amount of police violence they’ve seen in their city and elsewhere, and the repeated conclusion that officers will not be held accountable for their actions in the justice system, even if the violence is caught clearly on camera, as was the case with Garner. As the commissioner decried these recordings this week, one of his officers was under investigation for punching a seemingly nonviolent civilian in the face and drawing his gun and pointing it at a person filming an arrest. It’s true that these cell phone videos of trigger-happy cops are indicative of an “epidemic,” in the same way that widespread use of penicillin or the MMR vaccination are indicative of epidemics of deadly bacterial infections or the measles. These videos are not the disease, they’re the best medicine we’ve come up with for fighting it.
Finally, there is Bratton’s rehashed argument that marijuana leads to violent crime and therefore should remain criminalized. This contention is absurd for the same reason it was absurd the last time he made it: The kind of violence the commissioner is talking about—“violence around drug trafficking,” to use his own words—is a direct consequence of drug prohibition. If we want New Yorkers to stop killing each other over disputes about illicit marijuana sales, we should change the law so that marijuana sales are no longer illicit. There’s no violence around beer trafficking, or cigarette trafficking, or even around the trafficking of an intensely potent hallucinogenic drug like salvia, because beer and cigarettes and salvia are legal. Bratton is making a great argument for legalization and presenting it as an argument for prohibition.
Even more interesting than these flawed arguments themselves is the fact that Bratton is making them at all. Under Bill de Blasio, the commissioner has walked a fine line between full-throated support for the police and espousal of the mayor’s more reform-minded message, and has risked alienating his own department multiple times by sticking by the mayor’s side. As the city government is dogged by a federal corruption investigation that seems to be widening every day, Bratton is suddenly a gregarious defender of the law enforcement status quo. He no longer seems concerned about offending the mayor’s liberal base, or, for that matter, making completely bogus arguments.
For de Blasio, Bratton’s newfound voice seems to be an unexpected consequence of the mayor’s own dalliances with shady fundraising and “shadow government” advisors. If Bratton has gone off-script and off the leash, it may be because he knows Bill de Blasio is too unpopular to risk reining him in.