New York City, NY/USA – June 7, 2020 – Black Lives Matter, Justice for George Floyd protests rally and marches in Manhattan.
Photo by Sue Nilsson/Shutterstock.com
When Bill de Blasio was running for New York City public advocate, draft legislation was circulating among council members that sought to expand the powers of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s independent body investigating abuses by police. It was 2009, discriminatory stops of black and Latino men in the city were rampant, and what would become a yearslong federal court battle challenging the practice had just begun. Kirsten John Foy was working for the Rev. Al Sharpton at the time and seeking sponsors for the bills among elected officials. De Blasio wanted Foy to join his campaign.
“He made a personal commitment to me that this was going to be a major priority of his office, which was one of the reasons I decided to leave the nonprofit sector and go into government to work for him,” said Foy, who joined de Blasio’s team as a top adviser.
De Blasio won, but the bills went nowhere. Soon after he was elected, he started damping down his police reform rhetoric. When Foy challenged him, de Blasio, who had made clear the public advocate office was just a stepping stone, said that he had retreated from his promise to reform the police because of “the impact that it would have on his electability to pursue progressive police reform at the time,” Foy told The Intercept.
De Blasio spoke of the importance “not to miss the forest for the trees and to gain a longer-term perspective,” Foy recalled. “If we wanted real deep reforms,” he said de Blasio told him, “we really needed to focus on getting him elected mayor in order to be in a position to institute real reforms, and achieve real transformation of the department.”
Foy felt betrayed. “I felt like, both the electorate and I, and many of the advocates that supported him over some of the other candidates, were duped,” he said.
There were more problems: Foy — who is black — and other staffers of color repeatedly told de Blasio that “he needed to demonstrate a real commitment to reforms that were a priority for the black electorate and the black community, first and foremost being police reform.” But de Blasio, whose wife and children are black, believed his family “would be enough to prove to black voters that he was indeed sympathetic and friendly and receptive to our needs and concerns and priorities.” Foy never heard him talk about the challenges of raising a black son in a racist country, nor about how his black family informed his political priorities. “Every time there was a mention of his family, it was in the context of the political capital that it would accrue,” said Foy.
Four years later, a judge ruled that the city’s stop-and-frisk policing practices were unconstitutional and racially discriminatory, and ordered sweeping changes. This time, de Blasio was running for mayor, and by then he was speaking publicly, and often, about his experience as the father of a black son. In a viral campaign video that some credited with winning the election, Dante de Blasio, 15 at the time and sporting a giant Afro, told voters that his father was “the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color. … And I’d say that even if he weren’t my dad.”
When he first saw the ad, “I was disgusted,” said Foy, who by that time had left the public advocate’s office. “I was disgusted by the notion that he would pimp his family in such a way.”
Last year, when de Blasio briefly entered a crowded presidential democratic primary, he again talked about Dante, arguing in a debate that what set him apart from the rest of the field was the fact that “for the last 21 years, I have been raising a black son in America.”
Since becoming mayor, de Blasio has taken credit for court-ordered reforms that followed a settlement in the stop-and-frisk lawsuit. He has also claimed responsibility for falling crime rates that have generally been on a downward slope in the city for years. But his six years as mayor hardly brought the transformation to the largest police department in the country that Foy and so many had hoped for. Months into his first term, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed 43-year-old Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk, a moment that defined de Blasio’s relationship with the police — and with New Yorkers demanding police accountability.
When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May — setting off the massive protests that have rocked the nation for more than a week — de Blasio joined many officials across the country in jumping to condemn the officers’ actions. “This nation has devalued the lives of Black men for centuries. It has to end,” the mayor tweeted. “And it will only end when there are consequences for those who do wrong. These officers need to be charged immediately.” New Yorkers were quick to point to the hypocrisy of de Blasio’s comment. Eric Garner, they noted, had died in a very similar manner, but the officer who killed him, Daniel Pantaleo, was never indicted, and it took five years for the NYPD to fire him.
Within days, protests over Floyd’s killing had also taken over New York City, where they have only grown larger as the days have passed. New York police have responded to the mostly peaceful protests with enormous violence. Social media feeds are full of videos of police brutality. As The Intercept has reported, NYPD officers have beat protesters with nightsticks, shoved people to the ground, ripped off masks to pepper-spray them at close range, and in at least one occasion pointed a gun at a group of demonstrators. Over police radio, officers appeared to call on colleagues, in reference to protesters, to “shoot those motherfuckers.” At least 2,500 people were arrested in the city as of Thursday, including journalists and de Blasio’s own daughter, Chiara. It was the largest mass arrest event in New York City history.
Plunged into a new crisis, de Blasio hesitated. For several days, he refused to condemn the actions of police, instead blaming protesters and defending officers even in the face of videos that left little ambiguity about their conduct. In what critics have already labeled one of his lowest points as mayor, de Blasio insisted that officers, including some who had driven their vehicle into a crowd, had “acted appropriately” — despite a video showing they had plenty of space to safely back up. “It’s inappropriate for protesters to surround a police vehicle,” de Blasio said, prompting a widespread backlash. “If a police officer is in that situation, they have to get out of the situation. … They didn’t start that situation.”
By the time de Blasio attempted to change his tune, at the end of last week, he had been booed at Floyd’s memorial in Brooklyn, a number of legal groups had threatened to sue the city over the curfew he imposed in response to the protests, and veiled or explicit calls for the mayor’s resignation had echoed from the streets to City Hall. With the protests showing no sign of slowing down, de Blasio promised, yet again, “change in the NYPD” and conceded that “we simply have not gone far enough.”
“We’ve had instances during the protests where officers didn’t show the restraint we demand of them” added de Blasio, who days earlier had commended the NYPD for their “tremendous restraint.” “Disciplinary actions will be taken including suspensions of officers,” he wrote. On Saturday, the police department announced that an officer who was filmed pushing a woman to the ground and another who had pepper-sprayed a protester at close range had been suspended without pay, and that more investigations were underway. The first officer was later charged with assault. And on Sunday, de Blasio announced he would lift the curfew early, and pledged to “move resources” from the NYPD to youth and social services.
“You will see and feel more change,” the mayor wrote. “I promise you that.”
It was all a bit late.
Bill de Blasio soared into City Hall in a landslide victory in 2013, with a broad mandate to enact a progressive vision of reform. Transforming policing was a fundamental component of his electoral pledge, and while police reform was not the only promise he left unfulfilled, the events of the last 10 days reveal just how deeply the mayor has betrayed the hopes for change he had set so high. But if de Blasio disappointed his supporters, those who knew him over the years said the warning signs had been there all along. In more than a dozen interviews, people who worked closely with the mayor on police reform issues — including many former staffers, fellow elected officials, and some of the city’s leading racial and criminal justice advocates — painted a picture of the mayor as a calculating operative with no real commitment to police reform beyond what benefited his political ambitions. They described a man who was well-versed in the language of progressivism and racial justice but lacked the moral clarity and political courage to guide the city through meaningful change. And they told a tale of broken promises by a politician who not only failed to deliver the justice, accountability, and safety he had promised New Yorkers — and particularly people of color — but who also ultimately damaged his own political future and helped push the city into the unprecedented crisis it currently faces.
By the time de Blasio finally lifted his ill-advised curfew on June 7, former aides to the mayor had taken to Twitter to blast his handling of the protests, and more than 1,000 current and former staffers had signed a public letter expressing their dismay with the mayor’s record — including the expansion of the NYPD’s budget under his administration, his refusal to end solitary confinement, and his long resistance to the grassroots movement to close the Rikers Island prison complex. In the last year alone, they noted, de Blasio had expanded the city’s collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and demonized new bail reforms aimed at keeping thousands of people out of jail.
“We saw in Bill de Blasio a chance for real change,” the group wrote. “Our time in the Mayor’s Office showed us that the change we had hoped for, and fought for, might never come.” The mayor’s office did not respond to a list of questions from The Intercept.
“De Blasio is a hypocrite,” said Constance Malcolm, whose 18-year-old son, Ramarley Graham, was killed by NYPD officer Richard Haste in the bathroom of his own apartment in 2012. “It’s disgusting to hear him express sympathy for George Floyd’s family and concern … when he has always turned his back on New Yorkers.”
After Graham was killed, de Blasio called for “swift justice” for her son, Malcolm said. But he never agreed to meet with her after he was elected. She wrote him letters, and lost count of the number of rallies she attended in front of City Hall, demanding justice for her son and other New Yorkers killed by police.
“He hasn’t responded to anything that I have sent to him,” Malcolm told The Intercept. “We know we can’t count on him. It’s because of him and others like him that we are in this crisis right now, and the streets are rising up.”
A Legacy of Broken Promises
De Blasio’s critics on the right have long labeled the mayor a “leftist” — often referring to a 1988 trip he took to Nicaragua to distribute food and medicine and his support for the Sandinistas, a socialist party opposed to U.S. imperialism. His critics on the left have generally been more skeptical of de Blasio’s leftist credentials, and his political ascent followed the more traditional steps of a liberal Democratic career. After working for Mayor David Dinkins, de Blasio served as regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, and then as campaign manager for Hilary Clinton’s Senate run. As far as policing was concerned, de Blasio never stuck out as particularly progressive until he ran for mayor.
Through his decade as a city council member and later as public advocate, he largely kept police reform at arm’s length. When he was public advocate, staff and fellow elected officials had to persuade him to support legislation aimed at reducing racial profiling and making police more accountable, as he did in 2013 when he finally supported the landmark Community Safety Act, which strengthened prohibitions on racially biased policing. Council Member Brad Lander, who sponsored that legislation with Jumaane Williams, the current public advocate, told The Intercept that when de Blasio, who was by then running for mayor, finally decided to support the bill, “he came in hard on it.”
“But he had not been there for years, or even early in that campaign,” noted Lander, who spoke to The Intercept from a protest in Bushwick last week. “He had not been a police reformer before he ran. If you look back, you won’t find someone with a track record. He’s got a lefty history going back to Central America, but in his time in the council and in the public advocate’s office, I don’t know that anyone would say that he was a diehard police reformer.”
Well into his time as public advocate, and even after he took on the fight against stop-and-frisk during his mayoral campaign, de Blasio seemed to have little understanding of issues related to policing. On one occasion, a staffer recalled being approached by the office’s general counsel, who asked the staffer to write a memo for de Blasio explaining “why quotas are bad.”
“This is the time when people were talking about CompStat, and how quotas were driving stop-and-frisk, and he did not understand why quotas were a good or bad thing,” the staffer said. “I was pretty shocked to have to explain something so basic. … Like, what was the issue with setting an artificial number and police having to reach that number of quotas, regardless of what criminal activity was taking place.”
De Blasio’s background was in social services and workers’ protection. As a council member, he had chaired the council’s General Welfare Committee, and when he launched his mayoral campaign, he spoke evocatively of a “tale of two cities,” blasting New York’s economic inequality and embracing policies, like affordable housing and universal child care, that would help New York’s low-income and working-class residents. De Blasio had planned to make paid sick leave one of his signature issues, aides say. But in May 2013, when the City Council, after years of debate, voted in favor of a bill requiring many businesses to offer paid sick days to employees, de Blasio was left without one of his primary talking points. By then, the stop-and-frisk lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, as well as two related lawsuits, had moved through the courts, and that summer a federal judge issued a ruling against the NYPD imposing an independent monitor. Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately appealed the decision, but it would be left to whoever succeeded him to continue or drop that fight. The mayoral race was crowded, but most other candidates “were not as willing as he was to really stand up and say, we absolutely need to reform stop-and-frisk,” a former aide said. De Blasio had not been a champion for the cause but he embraced it, “and so that was really one of the defining parts of his candidacy.”
De Blasio’s commitment to ending stop-and-frisk, sealed in the ad featuring his son, resonated immensely with New Yorkers. And when campaigning on that promise, the mayor “100 percent believed in that and that it was the right thing to do,” Rebecca Katz, a former de Blasio staffer, told me.
While the mayor continues to tout ending stop-and-frisk as one of his greatest personal achievements, those who had seen in his commitment to end the practice a broader promise to transform the way policing is done in New York City were soon left to wonder what went wrong. “There’s a lot that’s happened over the last few years; the city has been through a lot. I’m not going to make any excuses or defend his change of heart … or change of strategy,” said Katz. “Bill de Blasio ran on one platform. It’s different now. I can’t speak to why that is.”
But several former aides, many of whom spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity because of fears of professional retaliation for criticizing the mayor, questioned the narrative that de Blasio was ever as committed to meaningful police reform as he had led voters to believe. They also questioned whether de Blasio was ever genuinely progressive. And staffers of color, in particular, challenged his posturing as a racial justice advocate.
“The notion that he was this progressive always seemed very manufactured,” said a former consultant who was close to de Blasio’s political campaigns. “The only thing he deserves credit for is being early in identifying that there was a political value in being progressive that could get you elected into office.”
The mayor was reluctant to use his political capital to push for reforms he had calculated would not benefit him politically, several aides noted. “At the end of the day, he’s a politician,” one of them said.
On many issues, and certainly policing, de Blasio was no different from his predecessors, critics noted. “Probably even a little bit worse,” said Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead counsel in the stop-and-frisk lawsuit. “The reality has not matched in any way the image that he portrayed in the campaign when he ran the first time.” CCR has called on de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea to resign, calling their handling of the protests “a complete abdication of responsibility.”
Disillusionment with the mayor runs even deeper because of how high expectations were that he would be different. “He speaks in a way that I think makes progressives very confused,” said another former aide. “Because they feel like, this guy was supposed to be our ally.”
“Almost from the onset, people started seeing some differences in how he proposed he would do things to how he was going to do things,” echoed Jumaane Williams, the public advocate. “That was very hard to deal with.”
Co-Opting the Language of Racial Justice
Williams took his criticism of de Blasio a step further this week, when he told the mayor at a press conference, “you can no longer hide behind your black wife and children.” It was a pretty extraordinary political moment. But several people who worked with de Blasio had long warned that the mayor did little to support the people of color he claimed be fighting for. Earlier this week, a coalition of women of color who worked with the mayor wrote a letter denouncing racism within his own office, an accusation that was echoed by many former staffers who spoke with The Intercept.
“There was a clear distinction between how he interacted with white men and how he interacted with everyone else,” said Foy. “He’s reluctant to give institutional authority to people of color.”
Yet de Blasio also benefited greatly from his “proximity to blackness” said the former consultant, adding that the mayor could “speak the language” of racial justice but that “when you dig underneath, there’s nothing like a real understanding of how to be anti-racist at all.”
Others who worked with de Blasio said that he sought the support of people of color and pitched himself as an advocate for them and “the great white hope,” with little self-awareness of his privileged position and little willingness to listen to the perspectives of his staffers of color, particularly when they contradicted his own. Several former staff noted that while de Blasio listened to few people in general and didn’t take well to criticism, he was particularly dismissive of women and people of color. One former aide disagreed with the assessment and said de Blasio was “equal opportunity” in his mistreatment of staff. “If he’s going to yell at you, it’s going to be regardless of what you look like,” said the aide, adding that “it’s not that he’s not listening to women, it’s that he’s not listening to anyone.” But over the years, de Blasio alienated talented staffers, many women of color, former aides said. One of them compared the administration’s current sidelining of NYC Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot — who was recently the subject of a suspiciously timed leak by the police union — to “a white man calling the cops to do his dirty work against a woman of color.”
Cristina Gonzalez, a staffer who began working with de Blasio when he first ran for mayor and who was one of the organizers of the public letter signed by current and former staff, wrote on Twitter that she had been “so proud when we got him elected.”
Soon, however, Gonzalez grew disillusioned as she saw people of color “tokenized” in the mayor’s office — a sentiment shared by several other staffers of color who spoke with The Intercept. “Microaggressions were rampant,” she wrote, and people of color were paid less than their white counterparts. At one point, she added, the mayor commented on the fact that enrollment for his universal pre-K initiative was lower among people of color because “they didn’t understand the value of education.”
“Even as he makes the wrong choices, even as he chooses policies that further drive inequality, he still co-opts the language of the marginalized,” Gonzalez told me. “He still uses the words that sound OK, that make it seem like he’s a progressive champion, without having to do any of the work. I think that’s really what’s so hard about his version of being progressive, his version of advocacy. It’s facile, it is surface, it is lazy. And we deserve better, especially considering how much power he actually has to do the things that he said he believes in.”
There is no question that de Blasio’s black wife and children were fundamental to his campaign and win. As was reported at the time, when de Blasio was running for public advocate, his campaign sent out different mailings, prominently featuring his wife and children in those sent to black voters but not in those sent to white voters. “His family validated him with black voters but invalidated him with white voters, and he was willing to split the hair,” said Foy. “I had girlfriends of mine, black women that lived in Brooklyn, that said to me, ‘One more piece of mail with Chirlane on it and no real policy information and I’m not going to vote for him,’” echoed another former aide. “They were offended.”
A Calculated Move
One of de Blasio’s first actions as mayor was the reappointment of William Bratton as NYPD commissioner. Bratton, a Boston cop who had also led the Los Angeles Police Department, was an outsized figure with enormous power in New York. During his first turn in charge of the NYPD, Bratton had introduced CompStat, a controversial crime-tracking system, and incentivized the policing of low-level, so-called quality-of-life offenses, a practice known as “broken windows” policing. Bratton, in short, was an old-school commissioner who believed in aggressive policing. Even worse, he was widely seen as the architect of stop-and-frisk.
Appointing Bratton was a calculated move on de Blasio’s part, former staffers say, intended to prevent criticism that the mayor would be soft on crime. De Blasio had not yet taken office when critics and the city’s tabloids started decrying his “leftist” politics and ominously warning that, under him, the city would descend into chaos. De Blasio knew the risks well: At the beginning of his career he had worked for David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor, and one of the few New York mayors to serve only one term, after his time in office came to be defined by the 1991 Crown Heights riots. De Blasio was deeply affected by those riots and their political impact — and committed not to find himself in the same position as his one-time boss. But the events of the last week bore clear echoes of those days. “He’s kind of in the place where he didn’t want to be,” said the former consultant. “All the things that he tried to avoid is where he’s at.”
For New Yorkers who had high hopes that de Blasio’s election would mark a new era for the city, Bratton’s appointment was a clear sign those hopes would not be realized. The mayor’s team knew that appointing Bratton would be perceived as a betrayal and worked behind the scenes to tamper anger at the announcement by convincing public figures to allay their criticism. It didn’t really work.
“That was an immediate red flag that things weren’t going to be as progressive on the policing front as the campaign had seemed to suggest,” said Charney, of CCR. “He appointed the guy who in many ways was responsible for the whole stop-and-frisk mess in the first place. … That was a bad sign for those of us in the police accountability movement.”
“We thought that we would have a kind of reimagining or rethinking the approach to public safety in a more fundamental way,” said Lander. “The appointment of Bratton made clear that that would not be the case.”
De Blasio let Bratton run the police department as he saw fit, interfering little in hopes that the commissioner’s reputation would shield him from attacks from conservative critics. “It was a relationship like, ‘Leave him alone. And I know this guy will protect my back from charges like the city is out of control,’” said the consultant who worked with the mayor at the time.
Then on July 17, 2014, a group of officers approached 43-year-old Eric Garner, accusing him of selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk.
I Can’t Breathe
Millions of people around the world watched police officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a chokehold, and listened to Garner’s dying words — “I can’t breathe” — captured on video by a bystander and quickly gone viral.
Three weeks later, when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, massive protests against police violence and impunity erupted across the country, including in New York City. Garner’s and Brown’s names, as well as those of countless other black men and women killed by police, became rallying cries in the growing movement for black lives that has once again taken over the streets after last month’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Up until Garner’s killing, de Blasio’s comments about policing mostly had been in reference to the stop-and-frisk ruling and the need for tactical reform. After some pushback, the administration agreed to a settlement that mandated police reforms and the oversight of an independent monitor. The city had wanted the monitor to be limited to a three-year term, but advocates pushed back and said the monitor should remain as long as the police department failed to comply with the judge’s orders. “Now we are six years in, and they are not really anywhere close to meeting those requirements,” said Charney. “So they’re still under a monitor, and they will be until they can show that they have met all the requirements.”
Although Garner was killed in July, New York City saw the largest protests over his death in December 2014, after a grand jury announced there would be no criminal charges against the officers who had killed him, just days after a similar decision was reached in Ferguson, setting off more protests nationwide. While those protests were remarkably similar to those the city is experiencing today, police responded differently. There were incidents of police violence and hundreds of arrests, but nothing like the rogue, brutal repression shown in the last week. “We allowed people to express their anger, express their feelings, that’s what had to happen for people to get their pain out,” said Williams, the public advocate, adding that New York officials handling the current crisis “should have spent half the energy they are using to try to push down the protests to actually prepare an articulate plan of how you’re going to address the general public’s anger and pain. … That’s what’s missing here.”
After the grand jury’s decision not to indict Garner’s killers, de Blasio began talking about police accountability. In a speech at Mt. Sinai United Christian Church in Staten Island, he spoke in unusually personal terms about the pain so many New Yorkers felt at the time, and referenced the challenges of raising a black son in America. “Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years, about the dangers he may face,” de Blasio said. “Because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face — we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”
De Blasio ended his speech calling for justice. “Anyone who believes in the values of this country should feel called to action right now,” he said. “Anyone who cares about justice, that American value of justice, should understand it is a moment that change must happen.”
It was a passionate speech that forever altered the course of de Blasio’s relationship to the police.
“When Eric Garner was murdered, I think he really tried to be a human and a father,” said a de Blasio aide from that time. “He gave that famous speech about how he would give Dante his talk about interacting with police officers. I think a lot of people responded well to it.”
De Blasio’s speech echoed one President Barack Obama had given after Trayvon Martin’s killing by George Zimmerman in 2012, when he said Trayvon “could have been my son.” Both speeches were hailed by those who had denounced police violence against young black men for years, but like Obama, de Blasio faced an onslaught of criticism for his remarks, in addition to tremendous backlash from the NYPD and the police union that he never quite recovered from. The Police Benevolent Association, the largest police union in the city, accused the mayor of throwing officers “under the bus.”
“He spoke about, ‘We have to teach our children that their interaction with the police and that they should be afraid of New York City police officers.’ That’s not true,” said Patrick Lynch, the union’s president. “We have to teach our children, our sons and our daughters, no matter what they look like, to respect New York City police officers, teach them to comply with New York City police officers even if they think it’s unjust.”
The union spent the rest of de Blasio’s tenure attacking him at every opportunity. “The police union has been vile to Bill de Blasio,” said Katz, his former staffer.
De Blasio’s aides at the time of the Staten Island speech disagreed in their assessment of that moment. Some believe that de Blasio’s comments had been a genuine if naive attempt to call for accountability, despite the predictable backlash from police. But others saw de Blasio’s choice to openly criticize police as a calculated political risk that backfired; the mayor’s team was worried about de Blasio’s national image but miscalculated the local reaction. “If you are actually thinking about how do we actually move towards accountability in the city, from a place of power, you are going to take a far more strategic approach to that moment,” said the former consultant. “You wouldn’t waste the rhetoric.”
Then later that month, on December 20, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, a Maryland man who had traveled to New York after posting threats to police on social media, shot and killed police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in their patrol car in Brooklyn. At their funerals, hundreds of police officers turned their backs on de Blasio in protest.
It was a fundamental turning point in de Blasio’s relationship with the police and his mayoralty as a whole, most observers agree. It was “incredibly scarring for him,” said a former aide. “I think what you see right now with him being more deferential to the NYPD, more defensive of the NYPD, less defensive of the protesters, I think it’s him responding the way he wished he had responded in 2014. I think he really regrets that he was so critical of the NYPD and so on the side of protesters. He felt the backlash for years to come.”
“They hate him,” another aide said more bluntly, referring to police. “I think for a long time after that, he really wanted the police’s respect back, and he is not going to get it.”
Images from the funerals made the rounds across the country, putting de Blasio’s larger political ambitions in serious jeopardy. “I think he felt like his political career was on the cusp of being over,” said the consultant. “It was a pretty devastating moment for him.”
“I’m sure it hurt,” echoed Lander. “It was horrible what happened to Liu and Ramos, and to be trying to mourn them and reflect your sorrow, I’m sure it was extremely painful on a personal level. And I’m sure it made him very anxious because the idea that you could lose your police force, that they could stop obeying you, is terrifying.”
De Blasio spent the next five years paying the price for that speech — and trying to make up for it by capitulating to the police department and putting an end to any remaining hopes his supporters might have left for serious reform. “Since then it’s been just, ‘Whatever the police want, whatever the police say,’” said yet another former aide.
But while he lost the support of many who had once believed in him as a reformer, he also never recovered the respect of many police officers or their unbridled unions.
In February 2020, the PBA declared “war” on the mayor; last week a different police union, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, declared war on New York City as a whole — warning in a statement, “we will win this war on New York City.”
After Bratton retired in 2016, and de Blasio appointed two more white male commissioners to run the NYPD, the mayor remained careful not to criticize police.
Bratton’s successors, James O’Neill and now Dermot Shea, particularly liked to trot out the idea of “community policing,” a favorite among proponents of moderate police reform that critics say only funnels more resources to police department but does little to change the violent impact of their presence in the communities they police. After his early comments on Garner’s killing, de Blasio was careful not to talk about accountability in strong terms again. “He has given all of his police commissioners pretty much carte blanche to do whatever it is they wanted to do,” said Charney. “I don’t think there’s really any accountability for them.”
Lander agreed, giving the mayor credit for some changes but arguing that he did nothing to tackle the police impunity that mattered most to New Yorkers. “In hindsight, you can see that accountability is the line that the NYPD has drawn,” Lander said. “We will make certain kinds of tactical changes, but we will not accept any changes to a system that does not provide meaningful accountability in cases of police misconduct.”
There has been some progress, critics admit. When de Blasio first took office as mayor, he kept his promise to drop an appeal filed by the Bloomberg administration in the stop-and-frisk case. The city negotiated a settlement with the plaintiffs, and since then the NYPD has been willing to a certain extent to cooperate with the court-mandated monitor and engage in discussions about what needs to change, said Charney, the lead counsel in the case. “It’s very different than things were under Bloomberg, when they were like, ‘There’s not even a problem here, how dare you accuse us of doing anything wrong.’”
But that’s as far as the progress goes, Charney noted. In its ruling against the NYPD, Judge Shira Scheindlin found that the department had not only violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits law enforcement from stopping people without reasonable suspicion, but also found that the NYPD was acting in a racially discriminatory way by targeting people of color disproportionately and intentionally.
“I think that’s the place where they have done not only not enough but not really done anything meaningful,” said Charney. “It’s great that you’re saying as a police department, we’re going to prohibit racial profiling, but the only way that means anything is if you actually enforce that.” Indeed, while overall the number of stops is down, racial disparities in who is getting stopped run as deep as they did at the height of stop-and-frisk. A review of police stops during de Blasio’s first three years in office by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that while stops were down significantly from 2011, when 700,000 stops were reported, a majority of those stopped continued to be blacks and Latinos — who accounted for more than 90 percent of reported stops in at least 30 precincts, and for a majority of stops even in precincts with the lowest proportion of black and Latino residents.
Between 2014 and the end of 2018, the NYPD received more than 2,400 complaints of discriminatory policing: It substantiated zero, according to a report by the city’s Department of Investigation. The report also found serious problems with the ways the NYPD investigates misconduct allegations, and suggested that investigators weren’t taking the complaints seriously, tainting their interviews with witnesses and ultimately their findings. “That’s an example where the department had an opportunity to show that it is taking racial bias seriously,” said Charney. “And it’s coming up very short.”
As The Intercept has previously reported, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, deep-running racial disparities in New York City policing have extended to the enforcement of social distancing measures. Earlier this month, CCR, with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Legal Aid Society, filed an emergency motion arguing that the city’s racially discriminatory enforcement of social distancing measures violated their obligations under the stop-and-frisk settlement. “It’s kind of déjà vu all over again,” said Charney. “It’s six years later, and we’re not really seeing any progress in this area.”
Several times during de Blasio’s time in office, those who had hoped he would bring about an era of change at the NYPD were disappointed. In 2015, de Blasio announced the hiring of 1,300 new police officers to join an already swollen department of about 35,000. Under his administration, the NYPD’s budget grew to $5.6 billion in 2019, up from $4.6 billion in 2014, and police overtime costs have jumped by $100 million a year despite plummeting crime. These increases came even as the city spent almost $69 million to settle misconduct lawsuits last year alone, nearly $30 million more than what the city paid out a year earlier. Those lawsuits cost the city some $230 million in 2018 and $335.5 million in 2017. The city also spent $18 million to settle lawsuits over police misconduct after protests at the 2004 Republican convention led to 1,800 arrests; observers have already warned that lawsuits stemming from the current protests, where many more people were arrested, will likely cost the city far more.
De Blasio also oversaw programs bringing more officers into schools and the launch of a new police unit targeting young people. As The Intercept reported before, a secretive gang database maintained by the NYPD was expanded by 70 percent during his administration. De Blasio opposed police reforms proposed by legislators, including a 2014 “chokehold ban” that the City Council is now trying to bring up for a vote. And his administration expanded the interpretation of a state law known as “50-a,” which protects the personnel records of law enforcement officers, making information about officers accused of abuse and misconduct mostly inaccessible to the public. For years, de Blasio has opposed calls to repeal 50-a, but he backtracked last week, after repeal of the legislation became yet another demand at city protests. “We WILL change the law to allow more transparency when it comes to police disciplinary actions,” the mayor tweeted on Sunday. This week, New York state legislators voted in favor of an anti-chokehold bill as well as the repeal of 50-a.
“I think it’s a mischaracterization when people say that de Blasio has changed,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, the director of Communities United for Police Reform, or CPR, a campaign to end discriminatory policing in the city. “Just like every other mayoral candidate, he took a position around policing and stop-and-frisk, and the position he took was the one he thought was going to help him the most in terms of getting elected.”
CPR, which includes dozens of grassroots groups that have been pushing police accountability in the city for decades, was pivotal to the movement around stop-and-frisk and largely contributed to making it the key campaign issue on which de Blasio ran and won. “He continues to say that New York City has ended stop-and-frisk,” Kang told The Intercept. “That has never been true.”
What distinguishes de Blasio’s record on policing over that of his predecessors are his administration’s “lies,” she said, decrying his position until last week on 50-a, his repeated defense of police officers who killed New Yorkers, and his obstruction of efforts to increase police accountability — from the Right to Know Act, which de Blasio opposed, before eventually supporting in revised form, to last year’s city charter revision ballot proposal, seeking to give the CCRB greater powers to hold police accountable, which the administration sought to kill before New Yorkers overwhelmingly voted in its favor.
“The whole world saw him obstructing the firing of Pantaleo for choking and killing Eric Garner,” Kang said, noting that CPR is still fighting for the other officers in the case to be fired. But there were other cases that got far less public scrutiny, she added. Advocates spent 16 weeks pushing the city to release the names of the officers who killed Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights in 2018, even though New York law does not actually prohibit disclosure of the names of officers involved in police killings. And advocates and family members are still fighting for the release of body camera footage showing police officers killing Antonio Williams in the Bronx last September. Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, fought for years to force the police department to conduct an investigation. Graham’s killer, Richard Haste, quit the department after an internal review ended with a recommendation for his dismissal.
“Richard Haste, who murdered my son, collected tens of thousands of dollars in pay increase every year for five years,” she told The Intercept. “Five years, I was fighting to get him fired — under de Blasio’s administration, under de Blasio’s watch.”
He’s Doing Nothing
Even in a year marked by a disastrous and much maligned presidential run, and his fatally incompetent mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, de Blasio’s response to the current protests has been a low point.
“In the same way that Trump emboldened white supremacy when he was elected, de Blasio has emboldened and enabled police violence,” said Kang. “Through their public statements and their false claims, they are basically winking at officers and saying, ‘Do what you want, we’re not holding you accountable. You can do something like drive a car through a crowd and we’re not holding you accountable.’”
De Blasio’s efforts over the weekend to recover credibility in the face of mounting backlash by yet again promising changes to the NYPD came late, and after he had broken that promise too many times.
“The single fact that he couldn’t figure out how to navigate the very notion of police striking people with a vehicle is a very hard one to come back from,” said the former consultant. “His legacy on policing will always be challenging, but I think his legacy overall is deeply, deeply at risk and maybe already sort of over.”
Up until last week, the consultant noted, New Yorkers who had not much cared about police accountability might not have noticed just how bad de Blasio has been on that front. The events of the last week have made his failures painfully clear, with calls for his resignation coming from a growing number of people, including prominent New York activists, criminal justice advocates, media personalities, and journalists.
As for how New York City will navigate its way out of the current moment, former aides and fellow elected officials say it will have to be largely without the mayor steering the wheel. “He doesn’t know what to do,” said a former aide. “He’s really frozen. He doesn’t know what to do, and so he’s doing nothing.”
“What’s necessary is a more fundamental rethinking of what the city’s approach to public safety is and that would require real mayoral leadership and vision,” said Lander. “And that’s not happening with this mayor.”
In the absence of political leadership, the protests have grown ever larger in response to increasingly extreme violence from police. Amid the chaos, some clear demands have come into focus, including first and foremost, that the NYPD, and police departments across the country, be defunded.
“When policing and criminalization are prioritized, part of what also happens is that the city paves its way for an institution like the NYPD to consistently continue to expand its role,” said Kang, of CPR, which has called for a $1 billion reduction to the police department’s budget for next year, and for a reinvestment in housing, food security, income support, and environmental and transportation justice causes. “We have to fundamentally change our priorities in terms of building safety.”
De Blasio at first pushed back against the growing calls for cuts to the NYPD’s budget, instead defending the department’s “neighborhood policing” initiative. “I do not believe it is a good idea to reduce the budget of the agency that is here to keep us safe and the agency that is instituting neighborhood policing,” the mayor said at a press conference Friday, calling the initiative a “game-changer” and the “future of policing,” despite the fact that it has achieved little in terms of improved police-community relations.
“If you undercut that, it’s not helpful,” he said. But in a sign of just how powerful the calls to defund police have grown, the mayor backtracked on Sunday — pledging to shift funds from the police department to youth initiatives and social services. Pressed by reporters on Monday, for more details about the plan, de Blasio declined to get specific.
With a mayoral election scheduled for next year, and de Blasio ineligible for a third term and all but washed up politically, New Yorkers who have never stopped calling for a deep rethinking of the city’s police are already eyeing the fight ahead. “I feel like the message has been sent pretty clearly to anybody that’s considering running next year,” said Charney. “In some ways, we got tricked last time, and we’re a lot wiser now.”