A video of a van from a New York police station driving into a group of protesters has raised questions about the NYPD’s response to the demonstrations and whether the city government – notably Mayor Bill de Blasio – has the ability and will to hold the police accountable to call.
Protests against the murder of the police of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, flooded another night in New York City on Saturday, and some became violent, with reports from both protesters and police aggression. However, police response to some demonstrations has sparked outrage activists and elected officials, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
In particular, the outrage was directed at a video of a police van driving into protesters. In the clip, protesters surround a NYPD van and push a barricade to its bumper, with several protesters throwing objects – that looked like water bottles and traffic cones – at the van. Another police van comes to a stop and slowly begins to make its way through the crowd, while the other suddenly accelerates and lets protesters fly. It is not clear whether someone was injured.
Speaking to protests on Saturday night, De Blasio called the scene “a very tense scene.”
“And imagine what it would be like, you just try to do your job and then you see hundreds of people coming to you. I don’t blame officers trying to tackle an absolutely impossible situation,” said the Blasio on Saturday. “The people who came to that police car were doing the wrong thing to begin with, creating an unsustainable situation. I wish the agents had found a different approach. But let’s start at the beginning. The protesters in that video did the wrong thing to surround them, around that police car, period. ‘
De Blasio’s initial comments were criticized, and although he tempered his comments the next day, he is now under pressure from both police and protesters. The mayor’s response recalled the sometimes weak relationship he had during his tenure with both police officers and criminal lawyers.
The Blasio has toned his stance, but his more moderate tone may have come too late
De Blasio slightly declined the comments during a press conference on Sunday morning, saying he ‘never wanted to see that again’ and announce an independent investigation into the incident, “to look at the actions of those agents and see what has been done and why it has been done and what can be done differently.”
That investigation will be led by the city’s chief attorney, James Johnson, and the city’s watchdog, Investigative Commissioner Margaret Garnett. The findings are expected in June. (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo later announced on Sunday that Attorney General Letitia James would also investigate.)
At Sunday’s press conference, De Blasio generally defended the handling of protests by police this weekend in general. In general, we saw tremendous reluctance from the NYPD. There will always be some incidents that we don’t like, ” he said.
“I saw a lot of restraint in very difficult circumstances. I will keep saying to everyone who protests for change, don’t be angry with the individual officer standing in front of you. ‘
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, who took last year as a top agent, also supported the police, albeit with much stronger language. On Sunday morning, he told reporters that peaceful protests had been “hijacked” by a small number of troublemakers. Shea said he didn’t like what he saw in the van video, but he added, “I look at it honestly and I also urge you: there are protests and there are gangs.”
Earlier in the day, Shea posted a long Twitter thread that said NYPD police were “ unprecedented ” in 2020.
“In a small way, I want you to know that I am extremely proud of the way you have behaved in the face of such persistent danger, disrespect and denigration,” He wrote. “What we saw in New York City last night and the night before was not about peaceful protest of any kind. It was not about civil disobedience. It was not about demonstrating against police brutality. ‘
There is no doubt that some protests escalated to violence and destruction. The windows of central Manhattan banks had shattered and some businesses were looted. The exterior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was engraved. Protesters set police cars on fire, which damages 47 vehicles, police officials said. Shea said nearly 350 people had been arrested and more than 30 officers had been injured.
However, no mention was made of protesters who may have been injured or injured in some of the chaos of the protests, or those injured by officers. The Blasio largely to blame for external agitators for much of the chaos, calling them “people who came to commit systematically organized violence. That is another reality we have to struggle with. But he did not go into further detail.
His failure to do so, and to fully acknowledge and condemn what seemed obvious examples of the NYPD’s excessive use of force, led to sharp criticism of the mayor.
“Given that these protests are related to police work, and communities that feel that there is no liability for misconduct, even when documented … this kind of broad overarching comment is perhaps the worst that can be made at the moment, Jumaane Williams, New York City Public Attorney, tweeted.
Given that these protests are related to police work, and communities that feel that there is no liability for misconduct, even when documented … This kind of broad overarching comment is perhaps the worst that can be made at the moment. https://t.co/zBBwxQXDh3
– Jumaane Williams (@JumaaneWilliams) May 31, 2020
Ocasio-Cortez, who represents voters from the Bronx and Queens, called De Blasio’s comments Saturday “unacceptable.”
“This moment demands leadership and responsibility from all of us. Defending and apologizing for NYPD driving SUVs in the crowd was wrong, ” she tweeted.
Corey Johnson, the speaker of the New York City Council, called the van clip “outrageous.”
“Driving police vehicles in a crowd of protesters is not a de-escalation,” he said. Johnson and other city officials have demanded an independent investigation in the protests, regardless of what the mayor has already promised.
The more protests take place on Sunday, the fear remains that not exposing the dangerous acts directly could lead to tensions turning into violence again. And that possibility – and the reaction of the police so far – may be a reckoning for the Blasio, who was mayor on a police reform platform and sometimes had a strained relationship with the institution, despite his last defense from the department.
The Blasio ran through the police, but his relationship with the NYPD is complicated
A ‘story of two cities’ was De Blasio’s broad campaign platform when he became mayor in 2013. The simple idea was two New Yorks: one for the privileged and one for the city’s low-income and minority members. As part of this theme, he embraced a police reform platform, campaign against tactics such as ‘stop and frisk’. In a famous campaign ad, Blasio’s teenage son Dante, who is biracial, said his father would end the ‘stop-and-frisk’ era that ‘wrongly aims[ed] people of color. ‘
But the reality was much more complicated, especially in New York, where mayors can rise and fall on how the public perceives public safety. For his first chief of police, the Blasio hired Bill Bratton, who served as a police chief under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. Many advocates of criminal justice reform choose Bratton’s partnership with Broken windows police work, a theory that tackles minor crimes prevents larger ones.
One of the first major tests faced by Blasio in his tenure was the death of Eric Garner in July 2014, who died after a NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, which was captured on video. (His plea, “I can’t breathe,” was the same that George Floyd did in his last moments.) “Like so many New Yorkers, I was very alarmed by the video,” said the Blasio at the time.
In December 2014 protests broke out in New York after a grand jury refused to sue the officer involved in the incident. (Also around this time a separate grand jury refused to prosecute the police officer who murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.) De Blasio expressed his solidarity with some of the protests. ‘Black lives are important’ he said at the time. “They said it because it must be said. It is a phrase that should never be said. It should go without saying, but unfortunately our history requires us to say it. ”
Two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu, arrived later that month and Rafael Ramos, were killed by a gunman while they were in their Brooklyn police car. The 28-year-old shooter had explicitly targeted police officers, and in the aftermath, some criticized the protests as fueling anti-police hatred. In particular the vocal police unions of New York, blamed Blasio. (De Blasio later called for the protests to end.)
At the funeral of the murdered officers, the police turned their backs on the Blasio. Ordinary officers’ response became symbolic of continued distrust between New York City police and the mayor. That image was almost impossible for De Blasio to shake, and much of the police unions continue to supply fuel. After a shooting in the Bronx earlier this year, it appeared that it was aimed at the police carrying the Blasio outright condemned, one of the unions “declared war.”
And again, it was difficult for De Blasio to overcome this sense of antipathy, even though it doesn’t fully reflect the relationship between the NYPD’s best buyer and the mayor’s office. Which in turn has led to criticism from the left flank, who sees it now de Blasio far too reverent for the NYPD and because they do not fully address the real, structural problems he had campaigned.
New York’s record-low crime rates in the city (although the murders have risen in 2019) have largely continued under the Blasio, although that can be attributed to many factors. And police reform has happened, if it wasn’t perfect. The NYPD’s neighborhood police initiative vastly expanded under Blasio and then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, who assigns police to specific blocks to strengthen relations with the community. Shea, the current Commissioner, is also a champion of this approach. The new strategy still has its criticism, and research is still being conducted into its effectiveness, both in improving relationships and in tackling crime.
The NYPD has also tried to place more emphasis about precise polishing, which is intended to target repeated or violent offenders rather than general approaches such as stopping and frisk. There has also been extensive roll-out of body cameras.
But critics say it is not enough. There are questions about the assertion of prejudice against the police are properly investigated. The Blasio has continued to support a number of “broken windows”, and he fought an attempt by the Manhattan prosecutor to stop prosecuting those who evade public transportation charges.
Of course, there are many nuances surrounding De Blasio’s record that both sides criticizing him – that he is anti-police or has given up necessary reforms – are missing. But it helps explain why the mayor faces a setback regardless of how he responds to the New York protests.
The answer to the mayor’s comments also shows why police reform is so challenging even in the most populous city in the country. Both of these things may be true: some protesters became violent, and some agents used inappropriate violence and may have provoked demonstrators. Failure to recognize the gray areas of New York’s turmoil deepens mistrust. In the longer term, this makes it more difficult to work towards or implement reforms. And for now it can make protests, which will certainly continue, even more volatile.