(Reuters) - New York Mayor Bill de Blasio implored protesters on Monday to wait until after the funerals of two policemen shot dead in an ambush before resuming rallies that have roiled the city and beyond over the deaths of black men at the hands of police.
But de Blasio's plea was quickly dismissed by several activist groups that vowed to continue protests that have stirred the city daily after grand juries chose not to indict police officers who killed Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
"It's a time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things we will talk about in due time," de Blasio said in a speech to a charity with close ties to the New York Police Department, two days after Rafael Ramos, 40, and his partner, Wenjian Liu, 28, were killed.
The men were shot as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn, and their deaths electrified tensions that had been coursing for months between City Hall, the police department and the reform-minded protesters who voted for de Blasio in large numbers.
Similar protests, some of them violent, have taken place across the United States, provoking a bitter debate about how American police forces treat non-white citizens that has drawn in President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder.
Even de Blasio's assurance on Monday that he would attend the slain officers' funerals, normally an unquestioned mayoral duty, took on a political charge. Earlier this month, the city's largest police union said the mayor had abandoned the police and urged members to sign a letter insisting that the mayor stay away from their funeral should they be killed while on duty.
Police identified the killer as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who wrote online that he planned to avenge the deaths of Garner and Brown, who were both unarmed black men killed by white officers. Brinsley killed himself with a shot to the head soon after.
"Let's comfort these families, let's see them through these funerals," de Blasio said in his speech, hours after visiting the officers' grieving families with Bill Bratton, the police commissioner. "Then debate can begin again."
But the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist representing the families of Garner and Brown, said de Blasio's call was too nebulous to heed.
"Is a vigil a protest? Is a rally?" Sharpton said in a telephone interview, calling de Blasio's comments "an ill-defined request."
Sharpton, who joined Garner's relatives over the weekend to denounce the slaying of the officers, said he would not change planned prayer vigils at the scene of Garner's death and elsewhere over the coming days to mark the family's first Christmas without him.
A "CHILL" ON SPEECH
The Answer Coalition, an activist group, denounced the mayor's plea as an "outrageous" attempt to "chill" free expression. It said it had no intention of cancelling a long-planned protest march on Tuesday evening.
At least one small candle-light vigil called for by a separate coalition of groups took place in Brooklyn on Monday evening, an organizer said.
De Blasio's remarks came two days after his tense relationship with the city's police unions and rank-and-file officers hit its lowest ebb when two union leaders said the mayor had "blood on his hands" for the officers' deaths.
The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the Sergeant's Benevolent Association have accused de Blasio, a Democrat who ran for office on a platform of police reform, of helping incite a loathing of police through public remarks noting that he understood some of the protesters' grievances.
Even if protesters say they will not be quieted, the heads of the city's police unions had agreed to suspend any lobbying efforts tied to the protests until after both officers are buried, Bratton said.
Investigators said a video on Brinsley's cell phone showed him filming a protest against excessive police force at New York's Union Square Park.
Rejecting the unions' arguments, de Blasio said the attack should not be tied to the recent protests, which in New York have been largely peaceful. But some protesters said the mayor sent the opposite message by using Brinsley's actions as a reason to temporarily stop protests.
The grand juries that considered the killings of Brown and Garner decided the police officers involved broke no laws. On Monday, a Milwaukee prosecutor said a police officer there would not be charged for the fatal shooting of a black man in April.
The officer in the Milwaukee shooting, who was white, was fired in October for failing to follow police procedure. As in the Garner and Brown cases, the U.S. Justice Department is now considering whether civil rights laws were broken in that case.
(Additional reporting by Sebastien Malo in New York, Bill Trott, Susan Heavey and Ian Simpson in Washington and Richard Weizel in Milford, Connecticut; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Howard Goller, Grant McCool and Ken Wills)