An op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Why we’re so Mad at de Blasio,” provides a good, reasonable statement of the NYC police case against the mayor. But it’s not good enough.
The author is Steve Osborne, a retired NYC police officer. Osborne begins with a strong description of the routine sacrifices cops make in subjecting themselves to the danger and stress of police work. He goes on to tell of the outpouring of policemen’s grief at the brutal murders of Officers Liu and Ramos. In effect, he is making a plea for understanding cops’ sensitivities. Fair enough.
He then goes on to blame the mayor for demoralization within the police department. What did deBlasio do to cause this demoralization? The first thing Osborne mentions is deBlasio’s public account of his discussion with his bi-racial son of the need to be careful in dealings with the police. In the same sentence he complains that deBlasio signaled support for “anti-police” protesters, notably by publicly appearing alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton. Finally, Osborne claims, without offering any specifics, that deBlasio’s words and actions before the killings of the officers “showed a contempt for the police all too common on the left.” So that’s it: two fairly specific grievances (the talk with Dante and support for demonstrators) and one rather vague one. Let’s consider these grievances in turn.
On de Blasio’s talk with his son, Osborne interestingly offers no opinion as to whether the mayor was right or wrong to instruct Dante as he did. Would Osborne argue that Dante would have no more reason than any white boy to be wary of the police? If so, he would be arguing with the overwhelming majority of parents of color. Osborne doesn’t go there; nor have I seen other police spokesman challenge the validity of de Blasio’s paternal anxiety. The grievance, evidently, is that de Blasio said something that he’s not supposed to say, even if it’s true. To my mind, that’s not a very compelling grievance, although it does perhaps reflect on de Blasio’s political skills (more on that in a bit).
De Blasio supported “anti-police protesters.” Osborne is referring to the wave of protest following the Ferguson and Staten Island killings of unarmed black men by police officers. The protests, of course, reflected simmering rage over a long history of unequal treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system, starting but not ending with cops on the street. Does Osborne claim that this rage and these protests were unjustified? He doesn’t say, but I would be curious to see his explanation of the finding that black teenagers in the US are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by cops than white teenagers. I would also like to hear his reaction to the Reuters report that 24 out of 25 active and retired black NYC cops recounted off-duty experiences of harassment by fellow police officers, in many cases on multiple occasions.
Osborne’s last expressed grievance, that de Blasio’s words and actions have long expressed contempt for the police, is simply nonsense. He offers no evidence for this claim, and can offer none. De Blasio, starting at least as early as his campaign for mayor, has expressed criticisms of police practices, including the now largely ended stop and frisk. But criticism does not imply contempt. Except, apparently, to police officers afflicted with a self-righteous sense of entitlement to the approbation of their fellow citizens.
So, there is little merit in even this relatively moderate police case against de Blasio. The real issue is police racism,* which remains a problem in New York as it is in police departments across the country. Osborne’s bill of grievances would have more credibility if he could acknowledge this reality, but he can’t or won’t.
Osborne suggests that a mayor needs “far more finesse and political savvy” than de Blasio has in dealing with the police. Here he may have a point. Smart politicians know that you can’t always tell the whole truth. The police simply will not deal explicitly with the issue of racism within their ranks, and bitterly resent any attempts to raise the issue. De Blasio has truth and justice on his side, but truth and justice unfortunately sometimes need to yield a bit to the imperatives of practical politics. De Blasio knows that, but my guess is that he knows it better now than he did a month ago.
* I don’t mean to imply that this is a simple or straightforward issue, or that all or even most cops are abusive racists. I’ll have more to say about this is in a future post.