A ceremony at Madison Square Garden yesterday morning marked the graduation of 884 new officers into the New York Police Department. When Mayor Bill de Blasio took the podium to address the graduating class, praising them for their courage and determination, he was greeted like an unpopular high school principal: with boos, jeers, and the turning of backs. When he talked about the officers facing "problems [they] don't create," someone in the audience called back: "You created them!"
Don't blame any incoming officers for the outbreak, however—they were only mimicking the hysterical fits their elders have been throwing in public for the past month. Two days earlier, at the funeral of officer Rafael Ramos, uniformed members of the force turned around en masse when de Blasio began to deliver his eulogy. (What other group comes to mind when you think about protests at funerals?) A week before, officers had turned their backs when de Blasio entered One Police Plaza after the shocking and senseless killing of Ramos and his partner, Wenjian Liu.
Those symbolic displays of contempt were intended to demonstrate the department's lack of faith in its democratically elected leader. What they have communicated instead is that the New York Police Department is too childish and entitled to deserve its privileged status, and too aggrieved and resentful to be called "New York's Finest." The New York Police Department is an embarrassment to the city of New York.
After the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed unarmed Staten Island man Eric Garner, the department has embarked on an apparent mission to make itself look as juvenile as possible. In addition to the turned backs, the union representing NYPD officers recently pushed a petition to bar the mayor from attending cops' funerals, then all but instructed officers to participate in a work stoppage.
Why? Because de Blasio had the temerity to admit in public that his son is at a higher risk of being killed by the NYPD because his son is black. Because de Blasio said out loud, as mayor of New York city, what American parents of black and Latino children have said in private for decades. (There was also an incomprehensible dustup about de Blasio's use of the word "allegedly.")
Four days before Christmas, a man named Ismaayil Brinsley grabbed a handgun, shot his girlfriend, took a bus to New York City, and murdered Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos while they were sitting in their car on a corner in Bed Stuy. Shortly thereafter, Brinsley fled into the Myrtle-Willoughby G Train station and committed suicide. Brinsley had made his intentions clear in an Instagram post earlier that day: He was going to kill some New York City cops, and he was going to do so because of the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
It's hard to imagine something that could have changed the dynamic of the ongoing popular protests against police brutality more: Two men lost their lives. Two families had their husbands, fathers, and sons torn from them. Thousands of NYPD cops lost their colleagues. The tragedy was an immediate and clarifying humanization of a profession whose incompetents and villains had dominated the news.
But if the deaths of Liu and Ramos gave the police department a moment to solemnly reflect and an opportunity to reconnect with a citizenry it had alienated with abuse and violence, they were squandered within only a few hours, when Patrick Lynch, the head of the police department's largest union, told reporters that there was "blood on the hands" of the mayor and protesters. The willfully ignorant dolchstosslegende of de Blasio's culpability in the murders was ridiculous to anyone with even passing understanding of the story: Ismaayil Brinsley allegedly shot and wounded his girlfriend before the murder-suicide; he'd had a long list of past weapons and robbery charges; he was obviously sick and hurting.
And so while Lynch brayed, the rest of the city kept moving. De Blasio, recognizing the gravity of the moment, called for a temporary halt to the public protests that have filled streets around the city all month. Protesters declined to heed de Blasio's call, and returned to the streets a few nights later, some singing "This Little Light of Mine" and paying their respects at an impromptu memorial for officers Liu and Ramos. In a tremendous showing of grace, Eric Garner's daughter Emerald visited the memorial, telling reporters, "I just had to come out and let their family know that we stand with them, and I'm going to send my prayers and condolences to all the families who are suffering."
Not moving: The cops. Days before the murders, Lynch proudly said at a police union meeting that officers should respond to gentle criticism from the mayor and demonstrators by deliberately slowing down their patrols: "We're going to take that book, their rules and we're going to protect ourselves because they won't. We will do it the way they want us to do it. We will do it with their stupid rules, even the ones that don't work." Another PBA spokesman denied that Lynch was calling for a slowdown, but the union chief's language is clear enough.
That apparent slippage in enforcement is addressed in a pair of New York Post articles published this week. According to the emphatically pro-cop tabloid, since December 22, tickets and minor summonses are down 94 percent and overall arrests down 66 percent compared to the same period last year. But instead of framing the lack of action in terms of Lynch's raging ego, the Post and its sources posit that the recent unrest and the Liu-Ramos murder have left cops feeling afraid of being hurt on the job.
In truth, it's probably a little bit of both. Whether you're a good cop or a bad cop, waking up and starting your patrol in a city where two of your colleagues were killed on the job and where throngs of people express their displeasure with you every single night is surely a source of enormous anxiety and discomfort, and rightfully so.
But fearful as it may be, this is the job the cops signed up for: to protect and serve, as the motto on the side of every squad car in New York says, with courtesy, professionalism, and respect. This is why the angle that Lynch's vituperative rhetoric is really about a union contract dispute is so unconvincing. Despite what the NYPD would have you believe, a police officer is not an oppressed minority, but a special, protected class of person—just look at what happened to Daniel Pantaleo after he killed a man on video for clear evidence of that. And if the pressures of being a police officer ever become too great, cops are welcome to relieve themselves of that special status by turning in their guns and badges and quitting the force.
Eric Garner wasn't so privileged. When the pressures of being a black man in a racist police state became too great for him to bear, he didn't have the luxury of quitting. The greatest tool at his disposal in the moments before his death was his voice, and he used it. "I'm tired of it! This stops today," he pled with officers as they questioned him about allegedly selling a single loose cigarette. "Please, just leave me alone." For that simple request, he was executed in public without a trial.
This is the truth that black and Latino and queer and otherwise disenfranchised New Yorkers have known for decades, if not centuries: The NYPD has never been "New York's Finest." The life-threatening danger that New York's police department poses to its citizens of color is so clear, so well-tread, that discussing it here would be tiresome if it wasn't so necessary and so agonizing. This year, there was Eric Garner, the unarmed father of six who was choked to death by a cop with an alleged history of aggressive misconduct toward black men, and whose death went completely unprosecuted. There was also Akai Gurley, declared "a total innocent" by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, but only after he was shot and killed by a rookie cop in the hallway of his own apartment building; Denise Stewart, dragged nearly naked from her home by a dozen cops who mistakenly knocked on her door after receiving a 911 call from another unit; Rosan Miller, given a mercifully nonfatal chokehold for grilling up food on the sidewalk in front of her house (this is what mercy toward black people looks like from the NYPD: a chokehold that doesn't kill you). Last year, there was Kimani Gray, shot dead in the street at 16 years old, and before that, Tamon Robinson, Shereese Francis, Ramarley Graham, Alberta Spruill, Amadou Diallo. The list goes on and horribly on.
But the world is changing. Stop-and-frisk has slowed, if not entirely ended. Thanks to collective action in the wake of Garner's death, outcry over the NYPD's brutality and recklessness became too loud for the department or the city or its white establishment to ignore this year. Mayor de Blasio's experience raising a son at high risk of NYPD killing makes him a compassionate and impassioned, if not always effective, advocate for change. His administration, the incisive editorials in the New York Times and the New York Daily News, and, most of all, the thrilling sight of people taking to the streets to demand justice have made New York feel like the city it wants to be—the greatest city in the world.
The infantile response from the NYPD and the unions that represent it is not worthy of it. It is hardly worthy of a schoolyard bully who can't believe he's finally been called on his bullshit.
Illustration by Jim Cooke