Police-community relations, already strained by nationwide protests over the deaths in recent months of unarmed black people at the hands of white officers, grew even more fragile in the wake of the assassination-style slayings of two New York City patrolmen.
A day after officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were fatally shot in their patrol car, recriminations flew in the country’s largest city, with Mayor Bill de Blasio standing at the epicenter. Critics blamed the mayor and his aggressive campaign to reform police practices for the shootings, with officers taking the extraordinary step of silently turning their backs on de Blasio as he entered the hospital where the two patrolmen died.
Relations between the mayor and officers have become so strained, former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly said in an interview, that de Blasio “probably needs an intermediary to go between himself and the [police] unions, maybe a religious leader.”
Sergeants Benevolent Associations head Edward Mullins refused to back down from his stance, saying the mayor “has turned his back on us — he got elected on his campaign of attacking the police all along.”
Police Commissioner William Bratton downplayed tensions with de Blasio.
“Can you point out to me one mayor who has not been battling with police unions in the last 50 years? Name one,” he said to reporters. “The experience of this mayor of some cops not liking him, it’s nothing new.”
But some pundits say the level of animosity between the unions and de Blasio had reached a critical point and the officers were even more inflamed than when thousands of officers stormed City Hall and stopped traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1992 to protest Mayor David Dinkins’ efforts to create a civilian oversight board.
“It’s poisonous right now,” said Jeanne Zaino, political science professor at Iona College.
Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican known for his tough anti-crime policies in the 1990s, blamed not only the protesters for Saturday’s shootings but also the sympathy they have garnered from de Blasio and President Barack Obama.
“We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani told Fox News. “I don’t care how you want to describe it: That’s what those protests are all about.”
The recriminations directed primarily at de Blasio began Saturday, with the head of the NYPD union saying the mayor had “blood on his hands” and former New York governor George Pataki, Republican, saying online that the shootings “sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric” of the mayor and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Asked about Pataki’s comment in an interview Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “I blame the shooter and nobody else.”
But he added, “I think the mayor of New York has probably undercut his cops, and the attorney general is trying to walk a fine line.”
A video of the arrival of de Blasio and Bratton at the hospital where the officers had been taken showed dozens of police officers silently turning their backs.
As de Blasio nears the end of his first year governing a huge and diverse city, there is a striking racial divide in how his constituents feel about his performance. A Quinnipiac poll found that 49 percent approved of how he has handled his job. But only 34 percent of whites had a favorable view, compared with 71 percent of African-Americans and 56 percent of Hispanics.
There have been a number of flash points between de Blasio and police, including one earlier this month, when the mayor told ABC News about his fears for his biracial son.
“It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country,” de Blasio said. “And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cellphone, because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”
The city’s police force, along with its firefighters, achieved iconic status for their performance as first-responders in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Not just in New York but around the country, people wore hats and shirts emblazoned with “NYPD.”
In more recent years, the attention on the department has focused more on the question of whether enforcement is applied fairly. De Blasio’s opposition to stop-and-frisk was a major emphasis when the former New York City public advocate ran for mayor, and a New York Times analysis in September found that the tactic “all but vanished” after he took office.
The department found itself in the middle of another controversy in July, when a group of officers descended upon Eric Garner, a Staten Island African American suspected of illegally selling loose cigarettes. Garner — an asthmatic father of six and grandfather of two — died during an arrest attempt.
After a grand jury declined earlier this month to bring the officer to trial, protests erupted. Early on, they were seen as a peaceful, more productive contrast to those that ensued around the shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson.
More recently, however, the demonstrations have taken a different turn, and that has increased tensions between the mayor and the department. After two police lieutenants were attacked by protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, de Blasio described them as having been “allegedly assaulted” — terminology that rankled police.
The police union has also posted a form on its website where officers can request that de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito “refrain from attending my funeral services in the event that I am killed in the line of duty.”
Minor incidents have also fueled the police’s sense of grievance against the mayor. When he was late for a November memorial service for plane crash victims, for example, he blamed a police ferry, as well as the weather. De Blasio later acknowledged he “had a very rough night, woke up sluggish and I should have gotten myself moving quicker.”
One longtime associate of de Blasio said that the standoff with city police “is a very potentially dangerous situation for the mayor politically.”
But the de Blasio ally predicted that the mayor is “going to weather it through. He will be evenhanded. He’s not anti-cop. [But] he is not going to be buffaloed.”