New York Police Department Turns Its Backs on Democracy

Some police officers turn their back to a large screen that displays New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking during the f
Some police officers turn their back to a large screen that displays New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking during the funeral of Officer Wenjian Liu in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015. Liu and his partner, officer Rafael Ramos, were killed Dec. 20 as they sat in their patrol car on a Brooklyn street. The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, later killed himself. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

"A reckless, coordinated escalation of a war." That's what the New York Times editorial board called the collective slowdown being conducted by the city's police officers in which, for about three weeks now, they simply have refused to enforce the law. The Times editorial board added that the slowdown is "damaging the social order." I say it's a threat to democracy. In a democracy, the people choose their leaders, and those leaders write laws and set policies. Right now in New York City, unelected, unaccountable individuals are making those policies and ignoring the authority of those whom we, the people, elected.

Remarkably, we have people on the right like Bill O'Reilly speaking in favor of the NYPD slowdown. Last week one of his guests, Kirsten Powers, said she was surprised that he supported this "NYPD anarchy." O'Reilly replied that he was of two minds, but he declared that, ultimately, "if I were a New York City police officer, I would be using discretion in the low-level beefs to get my message across...if I were a police officer, I have to be honest, I would probably be doing the same thing."

Here's an exercise for O'Reilly and those who think like he does: Imagine if public school teachers and principals in Scott Walker's Wisconsin chose to not enforce state laws mandating that students take standardized tests, or to ignore the state law that requires teachers to use the results of state tests in determining whether fourth and eighth graders can advance to the next grade. What if those teachers and principals just said, hey, the guy in charge of the state has said some things we don't like, so we'll decide which laws to enforce and which not to. How many minutes would it take for the governor to have issued an order firing each and every one of them? Well, that's what we've got in New York City.

Here's another hypothetical. Let's ask how O'Reilly would respond if the NYPD rank and file were engaged in a similar collective slowdown, only in this scenario they are protesting not Mayor de Blasio's handling of the Black Lives Matter protests, but instead the "broken windows" approach to policing, one that emphasizes strict enforcement of the laws governing the kinds of low-level or "quality of life" offenses being all but ignored for the past three weeks. Would O'Reilly, or other conservatives, be on board with the cops "get[ting] their message across" to protest that?

Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement are convinced that police treat young black men unfairly and unequally, in particular when it comes to arrests or other interactions that end violently. On the other side are those in (and outside of) law enforcement who reject that conclusion, although certainly not all police are opposed to reform. Too many, however, have decided to make it a zero sum game, in particular when it comes to Mayor de Blasio, such that any support he gives to the protest movement is, by definition, an attack on law enforcement. That's the root of the problem here, not what the mayor has done.

After the grand jury decided not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death Eric Garner, it was imperative for de Blasio to show that he empathized with people who were outraged by that decision and who took to the streets chanting, "Black Lives Matter." And yes, his statement about having warned his son, Dante (who is clearly identifiable as black), about being especially careful if stopped by police, and his acknowledgment that, yes, a young black man is more likely than a young white man to have his actions be "misinterpreted" by a police officer, were part of that necessary show of empathy.

The same goes for de Blasio working closely and publicly with Al Sharpton in recent months. Sharpton absolutely did and said some truly awful, divisive, and inflammatory things in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, and there are many New Yorkers who cannot forgive him, no matter how many years have passed. Nevertheless, there are also many New Yorkers who believe that Sharpton represents them in a way other leaders do not, and so by collaborating with him, the mayor is showing those New Yorkers that their voices too are being heard at City Hall.

But don't take my word on why police officers are mad at de Blasio. We have one retired officer's take, thanks to an op-ed piece published by the New York Times with a title asking exactly that question. The article's author, Steve Osborne, criticized the mayor's remarks about his son, and talked about how police "lack respect from elected officials." Osborne continued:

[de Blasio's] statement on Monday that the New York City Police Department is the greatest in the world came too late. He should have been acknowledging our accomplishments months ago, instead of aligning himself with grandstanding opportunists. His words and actions before the killings of Officers Liu and Ramos showed a contempt for the police all too common on the left, and it is this contempt that the officers who have turned their backs to him are responding to.

(snip) For the healing to begin, Mr. de Blasio must find a way to sound like he actually means it when he compliments us and to follow that up with concrete actions that demonstrate respect and true understanding.

First, let's address Osborne's ideological, partisan dig at "the left." There are few, if any, politicians or major activists who don't recognize and appreciate the role police play in protecting all neighborhoods from crime. Without question, low-income, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods benefit from and need a police presence. Without one, criminals would be far more active than they are, and would cause great harm to residents of those communities in particular, the overwhelming majority of whom are law-abiding citizens. The police do put their lives on the line in every shift, as Osborne notes in his truly moving account of how his wife waited up for him to call at the end of each shift and let her know he was done for the day, and safe. For that, police officers deserve and receive our respect. Osborne's suggestion that "the left" has contempt for the police is just false, and aimed simply at delegitimizing the vital push to reform police practices.

Regarding Osborne's accusations about de Blasio specifically, the mayor has, as a New York Times news article reported, "repeatedly praised the police, particularly throughout the recent sprawling protests." And that article was written three weeks ago. What did the mayor say on December 4, the very first day after a night of protests all over the city that broke out after the Garner/Pantaleo grand jury made its announcement?:

A lot of people demonstrated last night. They expressed their first amendment rights. Overwhelmingly, the demonstrations were peaceful, and I want to say, the response by the NYPD was exactly the right one. It was smart, it was strategic, it was agile - a lot of restraint was shown. When necessary, arrests were made. But you saw a very peaceful night in New York City. Despite the frustration and the pain that so many people are feeling, you saw a peaceful protest. You saw a minimum of disruption. I give credit to everyone involved, but I particularly give credit to the NYPD for having managed the situation so appropriately.

Clearly, the mayor has been complimenting the performance of the NYPD throughout this entire period of protest, despite what Osborne claimed. People are entitled to their own emotions, but not their own facts. Additionally, did Osborne actually say that the mayor not only has to keep complimenting the NYPD, but say it likes he means it? That's what a parent says to a child who doesn't apologize the right way, but it's not how adults who want respect talk to one another.

Speaking of apologies, the head of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said that de Blasio owes policemen an apology. This is the same Patrick Lynch, who declared that the mayor had "blood on his hands" in reference to the horrific ambush and murder of the two officers -- an act that without question also is damaging to the social order. Even Rudy Giuliani, who demagogued those same murders of officers Ramos and Liu, acknowledged that what Lynch said "goes too far." In a brilliant NYT op-ed piece, Charles Blow asked whether Lynch should apologize for his incendiary statement, or whether the NYPD should apologize for supporting a stop-and-frisk policy even after a judge found it violated the constitutional rights of black and brown New Yorkers.

If police officers are angry at Mayor de Blasio, they have every right to say so. They have every right to protest, peacefully, just as do any other people who wish to express their opinion in this country. That right is guaranteed by the Constitution. If officers wish to turn their backs to the mayor at the funeral of one of their own, slain on the job, they have the right to do that as well, no matter how disrespectful it might be to those mourning the death of a loved one. But the police slowdown is something qualitatively different from -- and far more serious than -- peaceful protest or even the civil disobedience of those willing to go to jail to make a statement.

If soldiers of a country's army, en masse, refused to carry out the lawful, constitutional orders of a duly elected government, we would rightly see that as a step toward overthrowing democracy, a military coup. When police officers, en masse, refuse to enforce the laws enacted by a duly elected government, when they seek to blackmail the population by saying, in effect, "nice city you got here, it'd be a shame if anything happened to it," they are rejecting the right of citizens to choose their own leaders. That is something the people of New York City cannot accept.