Mike the Cop said that he had to be careful in how he characterized the changes in the way patrol officers are responding to situations that could turn violent due to a City Council bill signed into law by Mayor de Blasio that subjects them to criminal charges and fines of up to $2,500 if they compress the diaphragm of suspects in bringing them under control.
"It's not a slowdown; it's just a change of tactics," he said, referring to the more-frequent calls for back-up in situations that two cops would previously have handled themselves. "We're working just as hard. But I think everybody is a little more cautious about how they approach someone who might resist."
Mike, which is not his real name, was speaking July 29, exactly two weeks after the Mayor signed the bill into law over the objections of top NYPD commanders and what he described as his own concerns that it might make it harder for cops to do their jobs by criminalizing actions they have routinely taken to get suspects under control before handcuffing them.
The diaphragm-compression ban was the added element of a bill that had previously focused solely on making it a criminal act for cops to use chokeholds. Mr. de Blasio had opposed the chokehold bill for the previous five years, noting that the NYPD since 1993 had banned chokeholds.
Council Member Rory Lancman said the failure to meaningfully punish cops who violated the departmental ban, most notably by Police Commissioners Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton, made it necessary to pass a law rather than relying upon the department to impose the kind of discipline that would serve as a deterrent. He acknowledged late last month that he tacked on the diaphragm component in the wake of George Floyd's death May 25 at the knee of a Minnesota cop, Derek Chauvin, because the outcry it sparked assured him of a veto-proof majority at the Council. That left him confident Mr. de Blasio would go with the flow rather than make a public issue of whether this might do more harm than good.
'Can't Legislate That Away'
Officer Chauvin's keeping his knee pressed into Mr. Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes despite the victim's repeated cries that he was having trouble breathing was such a heedless piece of brutality, Mike contended, that it wasn't "something you can legislate out." He understood the nationwide revulsion that killing created, but expressed frustration that the city had seized on something that happened 1,000 miles away as grounds to prosecute cops here.
"They're looking for a new way to arrest us," he said. We know that eventually someone's gonna be prosecuted. We don't know who the guinea pig is gonna be, but it's gonna be someone."
Informed of Mr. Lancman's statement in an interview the night before we spoke that he added the diaphragm-compression aspect to the bill once it became clear that the climate in the city made the added prohibition palatable, Mike said, "It could not have happened without the political wind the way it is. People are very anti-police right now, and now is the time to get something like that passed. They were responding to this political pressure and people whose motives were not pure," referring to the leaders of the demonstrations that began here four days after Mr. Floyd's killing and have continued for more than two months, even though the size of the protests has diminished since the Council and Mayor agreed on a budget June 30 that sliced $1 billion from the NYPD's scheduled $6-billion allocation.
Asked whether he and his colleagues put more of the blame on the Mayor for not standing up for his Police Department than the Council Members who seemed caught up in the wave of anger generated by the protesters, he replied, "I think it's fair to say most cops do tar the Mayor and the City Council with the same brush at this point. I think they view the Council and the Mayor as the same entity."
His own take on the situation was somewhat different, Mike said, regarding Mr. de Blasio. "As far as I can tell," he said, "he's sort of exercising his activist self and not acting as the leader of the city. He wants to be at the forefront of what he perceives as a righteous cause, but he's also responsible to us to a certain degree."
'Squeezed From Both Sides'
Notwithstanding his earlier comment about the public being "very anti-police right now," Mike said he thought that away from social media and news-media coverage, sentiments were more complicated, and that this, ironically, created another problem for officers.
"Right now the police in New York are caught in the middle of a political debate," he said. "We're getting squeezed on one side from the Mayor and the Council, and we're also getting squeezed by the public. The public expects us to help them. There's this rash of shootings, and if you asked most people in those neighborhoods, they would tell you they want more-effective policing.
"But," he added, "we're getting direction from the top saying that what you do may wind up being used against you."
Compounding the problem is that the new constraints on cops come at a time when there has been a steady increase in shootings and homicides, one Mike said had escalated beyond the troubling rises reported from mid-spring to early summer since the Mayor's July 15 enactment of the Council's package of "police-reform" bills.
It had seemed like particularly bad timing when Mr. de Blasio took that action in a month that had already featured the murder of a year-old boy at a Brooklyn barbecue as the most-shocking of a series of killings, including the fatal shooting of a high-school basketball star struck by a stray bullet and a woman who became a target when she asked people to stop shooting off fireworks in her vicinity.
For a Mayor less driven by his ideological leanings, those homicides might have amounted to warning shots against placing restrictions, aside from the chokehold aspect of the bill—which actually was duplicative after Governor Cuomo signed a statewide measure into law June 20—on officers scrambling to restore order in city neighborhoods that have long been the scenes of regular gunfire.
Didn't See It Coming?
"I don't think he really anticipated that there would be this much of a crime wave that would immediately follow his signing that bill," Mike said.
Given that Police Commissioner Dermot Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan had added their voices to those of police-union leaders in warning that the diaphragm-compression component would make a tough situation tougher for cops, Mr. de Blasio would have had to tune them out to not have seen this coming.
But Mike said the Mayor might have been worried about the consequences of not doing something to show the city was reining in police abuses. He noted that cops have had to adapt to the change with virtually no notice, in contrast to the nine months in which they were able to prepare for new demands placed on them and prosecutors under changes in the state's law regarding what evidence had to be turned over to defense lawyers that occurred in April 2019 but didn't take effect until this Jan. 1.
Then again, he said, "We're also looking at a very hot summer where people are unemployed."
That didn't mean, however, that those whom the demonstrators had portrayed as victims of racism and mass incarceration had been mollified by the reform package and become more law-abiding because they believed the criminal-justice system was now fairer.
Asked whether potential arrestees had been emboldened—as police-union leaders have charged—by the new restrictions on cops, Mike responded, "Absolutely. People are fighting us now more frequently. It's not so much the individuals [targeted for arrest], but when a crowd gathers, it's much more hostile. People who are not involved in the original incident now are defying us. People are questioning what we do every step of the way in public. That makes things more dangerous; it certainly makes things more tense for us."
Changes Compound Problem
This creates a particular problem when someone cops are looking to arrest offers physical resistance rather than just verbal complaints. "Obviously, if you can get someone into cuffs more quickly, that's what you want to do," Mike said.
For those unwilling to quietly submit, "You maybe corner or isolate someone on the scene and then you call for more units," he said. "We'll take our time."
There are practical reasons for summoning back-up as a result of the diaphragm-compression ban that go beyond a show of force making it easier to take control of a scene. "Having four cops is good; six is even better," Mike said. "If each of them grabs a limb, no one is getting near the diaphragm."
In the past, the focus in subduing someone who was resisting was on a "mount position, straddling the person's torso in some way," he continued. "Wrestling, grappling and jiu-jitsu teach you that the key is getting control of the person. It isn't that we're intentionally trying to compress the diaphragm. When you wrestle with someone, things don't necessarily go the way you want them to."
Mike works in a relatively low-crime precinct. Asked how often he typically has to take someone to the ground, he replied, "A couple of times a year. Most people do not fight us; they do not resist arrest."
For cops working in more-troubled precincts, like the 73rd in Brownsville and the 75th in East New York, which even in what some regard as the good old days weren't good neighborhoods, the physical struggles are far more frequent and the stress levels are much higher. There is also a far-greater chance of bystanders being more antagonistic toward the police, adding heat to what already would be a smoldering climate.
Waiting Has Its Perils
In his Manhattan precinct, Mike said, "Usually if you call someone to come, you get help quickly. I've never had a problem getting four or six cops to the scene within 20 seconds."
High-crime precincts have more cops assigned to them, but it's less likely that many officers will be free to respond when back-up is sought. If officers are forced to wait before effecting an arrest, the chance of a bystanders gathering increases. Mike said, "Some people are emboldened by a crowd," even those who might not cause problems once taken into a stationhouse for booking.
That's one of the reasons, he said, "why waiting for back-up is sort of dangerous. You're giving [the culprit] time to think: 'Do I run, do I fight?' Does someone come along to help him? Acting quicker is safer, but it does tend to go sideways sometimes."
One of the changes under the reform package requires cops to ensure that someone requesting medical assistance gets it immediately. Often, Mike said, those situations involve someone going through drug withdrawal, which is not something cops, with rudimentary training in first aid, can generally provide.
"You can't put them in the [patrol] car and get them back to the stationhouse, where things are more controlled," he said. "You have to get EMS there, and that's when the crowd can become a problem."
Drawbacks of Alternatives
Losing the ability—unless cops want to risk running afoul of the diaphragm-compression ban—to immobilize suspects by pinning them to the ground on their stomachs—"eliminates a tool from your toolbox," Mike said. "We have to be extremely careful in handling situations that we used to deal with on our own."
And the alternatives if just two cops are trying to subdue an individual can also be controversial, though not illegal. "We might be more willing to tase people," he said, though that can be lethal if the person has a heart condition. If the pair of officers rely on physical force, "It's not going to be completely wrestling-legal," which isn't surprising because wrestlers don't have the worry that their opponent is going to grab their gun.
"Doing some kind of forcible takedown is something that comes naturally to some people," Mike said. And the danger a suspect may pose to other people also comes into play, he added, explaining, "If someone is being stabbed in front of you, you're going to take police action" without pausing to ponder the legal risks.
In less-serious circumstances, though, "We're gonna do our job; we're just gonna do it differently than before."
This means, he said, that if it involves a petty crime, but the person stopped indicates he won't surrender without a struggle, officers are likely to call for back-up and just wait. "Slow it down," was how Mike put it. "What did this person do: he stole a beer at CVS; he stole a bag of chips. If the guy runs off and we don't catch him, all he did was take a bag of chips, and we'll have pictures of him on our body cameras. That's not a situation where it's worth it to put a knee in his back."
A Deterrent to Action
But if that sort of scenario was not the end of policing as he knows it, he said there were other situations where enforcement was likely to suffer because of the diaphragm law.
"You're going to get situations where police officers aren't chasing people, where we're not clearing corners" before a fight or some other crime could occur, Mike said. "Every action [officers take] could lead to violence."
That is why, he said, the actions by the Council and Mr. de Blasio have "effectively killed morale in the Police Department. I think what's discouraging is, we're out here trying to do our best, and most cops avoid trying to hurt people. We need a certain amount of leeway."
That is not, he said, the only reason that retirement applications are way up among Police Officers.
(If anything, the numbers for them, Sergeants and Detectives are significantly lower than they might be because people in those ranks are working under expired contracts which, when eventually settled would provide overdue raises that could be used to bolster their pension allowances. Those in the ranks of Lieutenant and above reached ratified pacts earlier this year that leave them with less incentive to stay on the job if they're eligible to retire at full pension.)
The budget cuts imposed on the NYPD that hinge on sharply reducing overtime have already led to restrictions, Mike said. And while the demonstrators continue to turn out in sufficient numbers to keep some cops occupied monitoring their protests, the persons assigned now are often doing it working their regular shifts at straight time, he noted.
Right Time Monetarily
"The whole department in June did 12-hour tours and lost their days off, and there was a lot of overtime for everyone," he said. "If you're looking to retire, now may be the time," since cops are unlikely to be able to supplement their base salaries nearly as much in the next couple of years.
Nonetheless, he said, he hadn't heard of any colleagues deciding to leave the force without a pension or a decent job waiting for them.
"I know a couple of younger guys who have 'vested out' and left," Mike said. "But most people, this is their livelihood; they're not leaving unless they've got something else lined up."
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