deBlas

OUT OF STEP ON COPS: Mayor de Blasio has sometimes shown poor instincts in his handling of controversial police cases, being too passive at several key points dealing with fallout from Eric Garner's death and unjustifiably harsh in condemning an NYPD Sergeant who was forced to shoot a schizophrenic woman when she abruptly swung a baseball bat at him. His shaky relationship with cops wasn't helped when he admitted during a June 9 briefing at City Hall that he proposed cuts to the Police Department at the suggestion of First Lady Chirlane McCray. 

Mayor de Blasio came to work on the morning of June 9 secure in the knowledge that even as he faced criticism from every side of the dispute over the NYPD and proposed cuts in its funding, he was still better off than Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

Mr. Brown was reeling from an incident five days earlier outside Buffalo City Hall in which one of those who had taken part in a protest concerning George Floyd's murder, Martin Gugino, had approached two cops and said something to one of them. One of the officers jabbed him with his baton and the other gave him a one-handed push. The 75-year-old peace activist tumbled backwards and struck his head on the pavement, with blood immediately visible on it. 

That wasn't even the worst part of the incident. Members of the Buffalo P.D.'s Emergency Response Team began walking past Mr. Gugino, and when the cop who prodded him with the baton bent over as if to assist him, another officer grabbed him and persuaded him to keep walking. Police eventually summoned emergency medical technicians who took Mr. Gugino to the hospital, where he is expected to remain until the end of June.

A Lie Quickly Exposed by Video

The Buffalo P.D. initially claimed that Mr. Gugino "tripped and fell" without mentioning the assistance he got, proving that there are some public officials stupid enough to lie in spite of video evidence.

After the two officers who pushed Mr. Gugino, Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski, were suspended without pay, the other 57 members of the ERT announced they were resigning from the unit, though they would remain cops. Buffalo Police Benevolent Association President John Evans described the disciplinary action as "this travesty" and said his members quit the ERT to show solidarity with the suspended cops.

Mayor Brown, however, said they acted after the union informed them that, the Buffalo PBA would no longer legally represent those in the unit. He claimed the union had "been on the wrong side of history for a very long period of time." That was closer to the truth but left out a key detail: lawyers for the city, which like most municipalities indemnifies police officers against lawsuits for actions taken while performing their duties, had declined to continue that policy.

Local TV station WKBW quoted one officer who left the unit saying, "I don't understand why the union said it's a thing of solidarity. I think it sends the wrong message that 'we're backing our own,' and that's not the case. We quit because our union said [they] aren't legally backing us anymore. So why would we stand on a line for the city with no legal backing if something [were to] happen?"

Email Confirms Pull-Out

The claim by that anonymous officer was supported by an email WKBW obtained of Mr. Evans telling union members after the incident, "In light of this, in order to maintain the sound financial structure of the PBA, it will be my opinion the PBA NOT to pay for any ERT or SWAT members legal defense related to these protests going forward."

He went on to show that his shortcomings extended beyond grammar and punctuation by adding, "OVER BULL----. These officers did nothing wrong but execute an order from the [Deputy Police Commissioner] to clear [Niagara] Square. They do not deserve to be vilified and treated like criminals for simply following orders."

That last phrase brought to mind the question posed by Phil Ochs in a Vietnam-era protest song, "Is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders takes away the blame?" An elderly man lies unconscious bleeding from a head wound and dozens of members of an elite unit of the Buffalo P.D. walk on by as if they were told, "Keep moving—nothing to look at here."

And so Mr. de Blasio had reason to be grateful that his conflicts with city PBA President Pat Lynch seemed like so much male banter in comparison with the mess Mayor Brown had to excavate.  

But then his Tuesday morning briefing with reporters began, and when the questions turned to protesters' demand to "defund the NYPD," he again dug himself a sizable hole.

A Psycho-Babble Audible

Asked by WCBS-Radio's Rich Lamb whether he wasn't concerned that "all of this talk about defunding the police is undermining the average cop's outlook on his job," the Mayor dipped into his psycho-babble handbook, saying, "we have to build upon where officers can have the true fulfillment of knowing that they are at one with the communities they serve." He added that diverting money from the NYPD to upgrade social-service programs "is not an affront, that is an affirmation of the young people and the communities that need help."

A week earlier, it was revealed that 236 past and present de Blasio staffers had signed a petition chastising him for siding with the NYPD in its confrontations with protesters, accusing him of abandoning the ideals that had propelled him to office and made them want to work for him. Attempts now to buttress programs for youths in largely minority communities raised the question of why this hadn't been a priority for the Mayor over six previous city budgets, each of which expanded spending while finances were considerably better than now.

A few minutes later, Julia Marsh of The Post asked why it had taken Mr. Floyd's death for the Mayor to shift funding away from the NYPD if he thought there was fat to be trimmed. He responded that during his early years in office, the department needed additional resources to implement its neighborhood-policing initiative, and noted that the City Council had placed a priority on increasing the force by 2,000 cops midway through his first term.

Ms. Marsh then asked Chirlane McCray, seated next to her husband, if she had played any role in the funding decision. Before she could respond, Mr. de Blasio interjected, "The answer's yes, the First Lady and the task force believe the shift of funds to youth services made sense."

Ms. McCray added that the task force had submitted a questionnaire "to more than 300 residents of the hardest-hit communities...and that was one of the most-important responses we got back."

She didn't say whether those residents were given choices on where to cut, including the large increase in mayoral staffers during Mr. de Blasio's tenure or the burgeoning corps of Department of Education executives hired by Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. And Ms. McCray's misadventures with the billion dollars spent on her Thrive NYC mental-illness initiative  raised questions about her expertise in getting more bang for the buck.

When the Mayor was asked about City Comptroller Scott Stringer joining the chorus calling for a hiring freeze that could save $245 million by forgoing a new police class, he spoke of "profound safety challenges that, after years of beating back crime...we have seen troubling indications of crime rising." 

Wrong Time to Attrit?

Which sounded like an admission that this wouldn't be a good time to let the patrol force shrink by attrition. And that meant that, unless he attempted to civilianize thousands of desk jobs performed by uniformed cops to get those officers out on the streets, it would be difficult to make big cuts in the police budget.

You would think that, given the ethical morasses into which he regularly sank during his first term and the extended period he spent away from City Hall running for President, those still believing Mr. de Blasio was a Great Progressive Hope could be placed in a single subway car while still maintaining social distancing. And his helter-skelter reactions to police responses during the protests offered yet another example of someone who lacks both gravity and proportion when it comes to the cops.     

The Mayor's mistakes with the Eric Garner case began two weeks after Mr. Garner foolishly resisted arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes and Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo made a worse decision by deploying an NYPD-banned choke-hold to subdue him. After a meeting at City Hall with some of the concerned parties, Mr. de Blasio led them into the City Hall Blue Room to speak to reporters.

The Rev. Al Sharpton departed from the usual earnest expressions of cooperation at these gatherings, brushing off Police Commissioner Bill Bratton's pledge for better training by saying he'd accomplish more if he would "perp-walk" the next cop involved in a controversial killing, and threatening to become the Mayor's "worst enemy" if concrete action wasn't taken. If that wasn't enough controversy, the police unions also questioned why the seating arrangement had placed the Commissioner on the same footing as the Reverend Al before being handed his lunch.

The Book of Rachel  

Suspicion among the unions was that Mr. Bratton and Mr. Sharpton were seated flanking the Mayor by Rachel Noerdlinger, a longtime spokeswoman for the Reverend Al who by then was Ms. McCray's Chief of Staff. She denied being responsible.

Less than two months later, a report turned up in DNA Info that Ms. Noerdlinger was living in New Jersey with a man who had done time for manslaughter after fatally shooting another teenager, and had not disclosed this during her city background check. Her boyfriend had continued to get into brushes with the law while posting anti-cop and anti-women messages online. The Mayor defended Ms. Noerdlinger, even though her concealing information about her living arrangement by itself could be grounds for dismissal. Two months later, under increasing union and media pressure after her son was arrested for robbery, she took a leave of absence.

The acrimony between the Mayor and the police unions got far worse after a grand jury in Staten Island that Dec. 3 declined to indict Officer Pantaleo in connection with Mr. Garner's death. Speaking at a black church in the borough that evening, Mr. de Blasio emphasized that when his son Dante was younger, he had given him "the talk" about being very careful in any encounters he might have with police.

It's conceivable that had he instead angrily denounced Officer Pantaleo or criticized the other cops at the scene of the fatal confrontation for doing nothing to assist Mr. Garner after he was subdued and unconscious, Mr. de Blasio would have triggered less outrage from the PBA than he did with an anecdote that union President Pat Lynch said threw all cops "under the bus" by suggesting black teens had to be wary of them.

An Early Violent Turn

The lack of criminal charges against Mr. Pantaleo sparked several angry protests over the next couple of weeks. 

During the recent demonstrations, the Mayor said they featured an element—violence towards police both physically and in the form of verbal threats—that hadn't existed during rallies earlier in his tenure. His memory had failed him: during one raucous protest in mid-December 2014, two Lieutenants were attacked on the Brooklyn Bridge—in one case by a protester who threw a metal trash can from the pedestrian walk toward him  on the roadway below that fortunately missed its target. A small group of protesters drifted away from the rally and were videotaped chanting "What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!"

The Mayor did not denounce the violence or the ugly chants. Not long after, on Dec. 20, the protesters got their wish when a career criminal with mental issues left his home in Baltimore and shot to death two cops, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn when he sneaked up on them.

Union officials and other cops present at Woodhull Hospital, where the officers had been taken and pronounced dead, turned their backs when Mr. de Blasio arrived to pay his respects. Several hundred cops would repeat the gesture outside the officers' funerals on successive weekends.

It would not be the Mayor's last moment of regret connected to the Garner case. Once the state grand jury in Staten Island declined to charge Officer Pantaleo, the Police Department could have moved to try the cop itself. Mr. Bratton said he had been asked by Federal prosecutors to hold off until they completed their investigation, although the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, which had jurisdiction, never confirmed this. 

The Livoti Precedent

Precedent existed for not deferring to the Feds. In the case that most resembled Mr. Garner's, a December 1994 incident in which Anthony Baez died after being placed in a choke-hold by Police Officer Francis Livoti, a state indictment was brought in The Bronx but the cop was acquitted in October 1996 in a peculiar ruling by Supreme Court Justice Gerald Sheindlin.

Mr. Bratton had been Mayor Rudy Giuliani's Police Commissioner at the time of the killing, which occurred after Officer Livoti became angered when a football being tossed by Mr. Baez and his brothers accidentally struck his patrol car for the second time. A personality conflict led Mr. Bratton to step down several months before the criminal trial. His successor, Howard Safir, who was far more willing to defer to Mr. Giuliani, not only made clear that the departmental trial would proceed without waiting for Federal prosecutors in Manhattan to act, he telegraphed the outcome.

Referring to the 1993 NYPD ban on the technique, he told reporters, "Choke-holds are prohibited, and that's the bottom line." In February 1997—26 months after Mr. Baez died—Mr. Livoti was found guilty and fired. In June 1998 he would be convicted of civil-rights violations in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and was sentenced that October to 7 1/2 years in prison.

In contrast, more than five years passed from Mr. Garner's death to Officer Pantaleo's firing, with the only disciplinary action in the interim being his placement at a desk job. It was not until 46 months after the incident that the departmental trial began.

Regrets His Dithering

By then, Mr. Bratton had moved on, replaced by James O'Neill, and the U.S. Justice Department, which was presided over by President Barack Obama for more than 28 months after Mr. Garner's death without a decision being reached on Federal charges, was under the control of President Trump. Mr. de Blasio insisted that if he had known the Feds would take so long before concluding that no charges should be brought, he would have moved to hold the NYPD trial years earlier. 

Mr. Giuliani, who was far more pro-cop than Mr. de Blasio, had not let either a Police Commissioner or Federal law enforcement put off NYPD justice for a cop who violated a fundamental department rule.

Ultimately, Mr. de Blasio acted decisively in having Mr. Pantaleo fired, apparently forcing Commissioner O'Neill's hand after the PBA claimed a deal had been brokered that would have allowed the cop to voluntarily retire. By the time that occurred, however, Mr. Pantaleo had been collecting overtime pay and increasing his pension allowance for five years.

Most surprisingly, even when he was discharged, the Mayor never said anything as critical about Mr. Pantaleo as his initial comments about Sgt. Hugh Barry, a cop who in October 2016 killed a paranoid schizophrenic when she forced him to make a split-second decision by swinging a baseball bat at him seconds after he convinced her to drop a scissors.

Mr. Barry had spoken to Deborah Danner for 10 minutes before that, trying to calm her while waiting for the NYPD's Emergency Services Unit, which normally handles cases involving emotionally disturbed persons. Yet his good-faith attempt to defuse the situation counted for nothing in the Mayor's assessment at a press conference the following afternoon.

Full Weight on Him

Where Commissioner O'Neill had described Ms. Danner's death as a collective failure for the department, Mr. de Blasio put it all on Sergeant Barry, saying he was unique among city cops in not following his training and instructions on how to deal with EDPs. He had spoken with the woman's sister that morning, and said she described previous situations when city cops were summoned to deal with her and did so without using force. The fact that Mr. Barry was at risk of being seriously injured or worse when Ms. Danner swung the bat at him didn't seem to matter to Mr. de Blasio.

It did to a Bronx Supreme Court Justice, however, who 16 months after the incident acquitted the Sergeant of the murder charges against him, finding that the Bronx DA's Office failed to undercut his testimony that he acted in self-defense. No departmental trial has been scheduled.

His haste in prejudging that case has not had a noticeable effect on Mr. de Blasio. Early this month, he suggested a cop who brandished his gun during a protest should lose both the weapon and his badge for potentially escalating tensions. When a reporter later pointed out that a videotape of the incident showed that just before the cop acted, a Lieutenant who was accompanying him had been attacked with a brick by a protester, the Mayor's response was that he hadn't seen it. Pleading ignorance to deal with inconvenient revelations is not exactly leadership. 

The police response to demonstrations after a curfew was imposed in the city to try to put a stop to the looting that had gone on for three nights had a curious mix of the indecision and sporadic overreaction that have characterized the Mayor's responses to highly charged police cases. He expressed unhappiness with some tactics used by the NYPD, particularly when they blocked off paths for the protesters to disperse quietly. But those situations generally occurred an hour or more after the curfew had taken effect. If police commanders hadn't stepped up enforcement once the protesters extended their time on the street well past the deadline, they would have rendered meaningless a tactic meant to get large groups off the street so they could deal with looting.

Made Repeal Necessary

On June 9, both houses of the State Legislature approved bills that repealed Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law shielding cops' disciplinary records from public disclosure. No one paused to thank the Mayor for, in the words of Yogi Berra, making this moment necessary. It had been his claim in 2016 that for the previous four decades, the city had been in violation of that law when it disclosed internal disciplinary actions against cops.

Much of the anger law-enforcement unions expressed about the repeal seemed directed against Governor Cuomo, who had prompted the rush to approve the change by altering his initial position that no action was needed on 50-a because the city had been wrong in its interpretation of its language.

But despite the Governor's change of heart, which prompted legislative leaders to speed passage of changes they hadn't considered urgent last year, State Sen. Diane Savino said the day after, "This was a manufactured controversy by the de Blasio administration from the very beginning,"

The changes, she said, accomplished through four new subsections of the Public Officers Law, would ensure that relevant disciplinary records were open to public inspection minus information that  would "have no meaning to the public" but could embarrass cops and their families and subject them at trials to "being harassed by opportunistic attorneys."

It was another case of the Mayor overreaching where the police were concerned and not satisfying any of the interested parties. After 6 1/2 years of overseeing the Police Department and seeing cops at both their high points and their low moments, you'd expect him to have developed some insight about them, rather than still zigging when he should zag, and vice versa. But preconceptions are sometimes hard to shed.


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