A meeting yesterday between Mayor Bill DeBlasio with the leaders of five NYC police unions, though apparently fairly civil, yielded no clear progress toward a resolution of the current antagonism between City Hall and New York’s men in blue. That is hardly surprising, because the two sides can never openly acknowledge, much less agree on, the problem at the core of the dispute.
The problem is endemic racism among New York City cops. The problem is by no means peculiar to New York—it’s probably less serious in New York than in a lot of other places—but it is real nonetheless. It is a reality that the police will never acknowledge. At least since the 1960s, when police opposition successfully defeated a proposed police Civilian Complaint Review Board, the police organizations have been committed to the notion that police brutality and racism are for all practical purposes non-existent, that they are politically motivated fantasies.
DeBlasio, too, can’t openly name the problem. His success as mayor will depend in part on his ability to demonstrate that his progressive policy agenda is compatible with the maintenance of law and order. (A well-worn right-wing trope is that liberalism was responsible for New York’s disorder and decline in the 70s, 80s and 90s.) For that, he needs the cooperation, at least grudging cooperation, of the agents of law and order. So, he can’t afford to be in a permanent state of cold war with the police. Which means that he must tread carefully in alluding to police racism. Even his relatively mild and indirect allusion to the problem, his revealing that he had counseled his biracial son to be very careful in encounters with police officers, evoked a furious reaction from the police, a reaction that is in itself indicative of the gulf of incomprehension that separates the police from minority communities.
So, DeBlasio has to walk a fine line. His own convictions as well as political realities require that he acknowledge the pain and outrage manifested in the recent wave of demonstrations against police abuse. But political realities also require that he come to some modus vivendi with the police, who refuse to recognize any fault on their part. He’s got a tough job.
DeBlasio’s challenge is all the greater thanks to New York’s tabloid newspapers, the Daily News and the New York Post. The NY Times has supported the mayor editorially and has provided reasonably balanced coverage of his police problems, but most cops don’t read the Times. The News has been unabashedly partisan in the pro-police bias of its news coverage, but the News has been restrained compared to the Post. People who don’t live in New York, or New Yorkers who only look at the Times, might find it hard to imagine just how bad a so-called newspaper can be. Suffice it to say that the Post makes Fox News look like a paragon of journalistic responsibility and integrity. Day after day the Post’s “news” pages have poured out anti-Deblasio vitriol, often in screaming front page headlines and two-page spreads. So, one tabloid provides the cops with daily vindication for their rancor while the other actively incites them. This is undoubtedly an important part of the explanation for the brazenness of the police’s freely expressed, self-righteous contempt for civilian authority.