nypd lamppost

WAITING FOR TROUBLE: Police officers monitor protest in Manhattan at a time when the NYPD was getting heat both for being too rough with some demonstrators and not reacting quickly enough to looting in areas ranging from Midtown to the Fordham section of The Bronx.

Even by his high standards for righteous outrage, Gene O'Donnell was unusually agitated when he declared June 2, "You basically saw the collapse of policing in urban America over the weekend." 

He accused "Mayors of progressive cities" of setting impossible standards for cops when it came to using force that would require them to be "pure and infallible." With their jobs at stake if their actions weren't beyond reproach, he continued, "What urban cop is going to get involved in the middle of a riot? People are looting, they come in trucks...you have major cities looted from stem to stern."

Mr. O'Donnell, a decorated ex-cop and former prosecutor who is now a Professor of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was speaking from Chicago—a city he said had long before this stopped responding effectively to street crime—and the previous weekend had been in Philadelphia, where "911 wasn't being answered."

But he saved his harshest criticism for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and his New York City counterpart, on whose public-safety transition team the Professor had served in late 2013, before souring on his performance in office.

'Agreed to Every Crazy, Unworkable Demand'

"Bill de Blasio and the crazy man in Minneapolis said we don't want our cops to be warriors," Professor O'Donnell said. "Every crazy, insane, unworkable demand [from police-reform advocates], they went along with it. So the policing profession is dead. You're gonna have the National Guard patrolling in cities."

Which was not a prospect he welcomed. He said the lack of leadership by Mayors and Governors in some of the hardest-hit cities had let the debate be controlled by those at the extreme ends of the spectrum: "The President wants to send in the Army, and the Psychotic Left doesn't want the police at all."

When I asked whether he believed Donald Trump would benefit from a backlash, as suburban voters turned off by his bellicosity were suddenly forced to ponder whether his behavior was less-troubling than that of the looters, Mr. O'Donnell demurred.

"Biden will be the big winner," he said, speaking six hours after the former Vice President had delivered a speech in Philadelphia in which he said, "We can't ignore the truth that we're at our best when we open our hearts rather than clench our fists."

"People know he doesn't hate the police," Mr. O'Donnell explained. "Mercuriality has its limits; Trump is just too unstable and nutty. And Biden is a blue-collar guy at heart, and he talks like the cops."

Hard to Pigeonhole

The disparities in his views on such hot-button subjects make the man who back in 1989 was a campaign aide to Bill Lynch, the architect of David Dinkins's election as New York's first and only black Mayor, as tough to put in a box as he argues most cops are.

Immediately after Eric Garner's death, he contended that Daniel Pantaleo was being scapegoated for a bad decision higher up in the NYPD chain of command to make arrests for selling loose cigarettes rather than letting the Department of Consumer Affairs handle the problem. But he also lambasted the other cops at the scene for doing nothing to aid the stricken Mr. Garner after he was subdued and handcuffed, and showing no urgency about getting him help when Emergency Medical Technicians finally arrived.

He was similarly scathing about the decision to arrest George Floyd in response to a report that someone had attempted to buy groceries with counterfeit money, saying, "In the middle of the pandemic, I can't say how ridiculous it was that the cops got involved over a $20 bill."

But when Mr. George's death at the knee of Derek Chauvin—who pressed it into his neck for nearly nine minutes despite the victim's cries of "I can't breathe"—created an outcry that was accompanied by more than a week of angry demonstrations nationwide that featured confrontations between cops and protesters, criticism of police conduct by both elected officials and some liberal voices in the media became so one-sided, Professor O'Donnell said, that it was likely to make cops unwilling to physically intervene in "ambiguous situations [because] you're going to be criminalized, demonized for using force."

Talking about the damage done by the more-violent rioting in areas like central Brooklyn, and the looting in that borough and the Fordham section of The Bronx—as well as the more-heavily publicized smash-and-grab work from Times Square down to Soho—he added, "The black community got destroyed, and you're still hearing complaints about police."

Looters Were Locals 

Mr. O'Donnell questioned why the elected officials who had been so quick to point fingers at police for rough tactics during some of the protests kept their hands in their pockets once it became clear that the "outside instigators" Mr. de Blasio and other Mayors had blamed for inciting violence were not the people behind the looting. He was particularly angry with Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, who for weeks has been calling for a freeze on police hiring to avoid budget cuts in other areas.

After cops in Brooklyn had their path blocked by protesters wielding a metal barricade, prompting them to drive their SUV slowly into them May 30, Mr. Lander tweeted, "This is appalling on every level. You would only drive a police car into a crowd of pedestrians if you (a) wanted to injure and/or kill, and (b)believed you would be immune from accountability."

What seemed to elude him was that, unlike a looter in The Bronx who accelerated his car into an NYPD Sergeant that weekend, seriously injuring him, the Brooklyn cops—whose action remained under investigation—were moving slowly enough that only minor injuries were inflicted. Given that at the time they were being pelted with a variety of projectiles as the crowd blocked them, and putting their vehicle slowly in reverse to find some daylight wouldn't have prevented their antagonists from blocking their escape, Mr. O'Donnell had a point when he accused Mr. Lander of holding cops to a standard he was unwilling to apply to anyone else.

After the Mayor June 3 responded to a New York Post reporter's question by acknowledging that "an organized group of criminals" was behind the looting, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said, "They tend to be from New York City," with most of them coming from Brooklyn and The Bronx. The same boroughs where looting was a thing in the pre-anarchist days of the 1977 blackout.

Prejudging Again?

Mr. de Blasio, meantime, had a hard time admitting that he had once again prejudged a cop when he claimed June 1 that an officer who pulled his gun and pointed it at a protester should have lost both the weapon and his badge. When a TV reporter said that video footage showed that the officer brandished his weapon after his commanding officer, a Lieutenant, had "just been attacked with a brick," the Mayor ducked his question about whether he should apologize for the earlier remark, claiming he hadn't seen that footage.

It's hard to imagine, though, that he wouldn't have been made aware of it by that point. Perhaps he figured that showing contrition wasn't going to repair his damaged relationship with the NYPD's rank and file, but failing to 'fess up made him look small once again.

It's not as if it allowed him to save face with the protesters, several hundred of whom had massed outside Gracie Mansion the evening before, right about the time Professor O'Donnell was lacing into him.

The Mayor's big promise on police reforms—as he grows increasingly aware that it's not as easy to criticize NYPD operations when you're the guy in charge as when he held other government posts—has been to repeal or reform Section 50-a of the state's Civil Rights Law, which for the past four years has been cited by his administration as the reason the department stopped giving notice to reporters of internal disciplinary actions taken against officers.

A Shaky Presumption

That move was controversial from the time it was taken, because the city's conclusion that providing that information violated the law relied on convincing the media that for the previous 40 years, police-union lawyers had been asleep at the switch in not challenging the practice. Governor Cuomo, who also recently said he favored a change, questioned whether legislation was actually required, because he did not share the interpretation the Mayor has credited to former Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter.

The issue had come up while the city was waiting for a decision from the U.S. Justice Department—then under President Barack Obama—as to whether Mr. Pantaleo would be charged with violating Mr. Garner's civil rights. It seemed less than coincidental that the "discovery" was made soon after a Civilian Complaint Review Board employee leaked to a reporter Mr. Pantaleo's disciplinary record, which included a case in which he and the Sergeant he was riding with stopped the car of two men they suspected of possessing drugs. One of the cops was accused of having the men pull down their pants and then flicking their genitals, allegedly to pry loose any contraband they might have secreted.

The case had been settled for $30,000, with one of the attorneys for the two civilians saying the city had been able to get off relatively cheaply because both men had criminal records and wouldn't have been the strongest of witnesses in a civil trial. Revelation of the incident was damaging not only to Mr. Pantaleo's reputation but to that of the NYPD officials who apparently didn't take disciplinary action against either him or the Sergeant for the flagrant abuse of authority that such conduct would have represented.

Ducking Accountability

When the police unions and people like Professor O'Donnell complain about officers being scapegoated, what they sometimes mean is that they are taking a rap because officials higher in the chain of command hadn't acted earlier to either get help for or weed out a bad cop. 

Perhaps the most-egregious example involved Francis Livoti, whose conduct on the street was so troubling that his commander in the 46th Precinct in The Bronx in 1991 told him that he would be transferred if he didn't seek psychological counseling. Mr. Livoti was able to defy his Captain because he was a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association delegate who had also ingratiated himself with the Bronx Borough Commander, and so he remained an accident waiting to happen until just before Christmas in 1994. He tried to arrest a man whose football had accidentally struck his patrol car, and when the man's brother, Anthony Baez, objected, he put a choke-hold on Mr. Baez that led to his death.

When Officer Livoti's violent history came to light, it was a major embarrassment for the NYPD and the PBA. The incident also earned him a 7 1/2-year Federal prison sentence for violating Mr. Baez's civil rights.

Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis cop who June 3 had the criminal charge against him upgraded to second-degree murder, had a similarly violent history yet avoided internal discipline before he decided to put his knee on Mr. Floyd's neck and press down for a while. 

Police unions argue that laws like 50-a in New York protect cops from unscrupulous attorneys trying to help clients beat criminal charges or win questionable civil suits. But lack of transparency regarding a cop's disciplinary history removes accountability when NYPD brass keep sketchy officers in place—at least until their behavior becomes so bad that it blows up on all concerned.

Timing Political

Professor O'Donnell argued that the abrupt revival of the push to change or repeal 50-a was a political sop to police critics and that it was "absurd not to have a moratorium [on such legislation] and stop the train and say the cities have just burned down. The cops face a version of what's happened in the country this week on a nightly basis in some cities. [Seeking access to their disciplinary files] is a deeply personal attack on cops individually."

That doesn't mean a change wouldn't be in the public interest. But the history of possible legislation since the Mayor insisted he'd be happy to see a bill passed to once again permit the release of disciplinary information doesn't exactly cover him in glory.

Through 2018, he said city attempts to repeal or modify 50-a had been frustrated by Republican opposition—with the support of the Independent Democratic Conference—in the State Senate. But that November, after IDC members pledged to caucus with the main party conference if it gained a clear majority in the Senate, so many seats were won that it seemed to make a change inevitable when the Legislature reconvened last year.

Except that Mr. de Blasio didn't push repeal, and neither did Mr. Cuomo. And without either of them making it a priority, Senate Democrats lost their fire. Reaction to the murder in Minneapolis has suddenly moved 50-a to the front burner.

Wrong Side of History?

Which prompted Mr. O'Donnell to say, "Call me about 50-a five years from now, when the city is like Detroit. This is an abomination to be having a conversation about screwing cops. Who's gonna be on the right side of history? I hate to say it, but the cops."

He said he agreed with PBA President Pat Lynch's statement a few hours earlier that the continuing feud between the state's two most-powerful officials was making his members collateral damage.

It was astonishing, Professor O'Donnell said, that "the Governor and the Mayor in the middle of a riot can't talk to each other. They're taking a knee, while the city is taking it in the neck."  

Earlier that day, hours after the worst of the looting—when cops who tried to intervene were slugged by those carrying out their version of a door-buster sale—occurred in Midtown the previous night, a drive through the upper 50s in Manhattan was illuminating. Along 57th St., luxury stores like Louis Vuitton, Van Cleef & Arpels and Gucci had their exteriors covered in plywood as a safeguard against their glass being shattered by those who, in Mr. Cuomo's words, were "trying to exploit this situation for their own selfish criminal purposes."

The Glistening Glass

I wondered whether, since the stores targeted the night before had been in the Times Square area and further downtown, the 57th St. merchants  just erred on the side of caution. But a swing back toward the East Side along 54th St. produced what had become a too-familiar sight: huge chunks of shattered glass glistening on the pavement along the south side of the street near Park Ave.

It was a reminder that the night before, watching the footage of people breaking into stores and carrying out merchandise that reminded nobody of Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed his daughter, the recurring thought was that the cops always seemed to arrive a step or two late to confront them.

Not that they were creating a problem by showing up.      

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