August 12, 2014

For The Record

For much of his career as an activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s prime constituency was the dispossessed and disenchanted within the black community, which gave him the luxury of articulating their frustration and anger without necessarily having to be responsible, or bring about meaningful change.

As he gained respectability starting with his 1997 run for Mayor, he modulated his rhetoric to hold on to an expanding audience and attract more financial support for the National Action Network. That hasn’t stopped him from occasional excursions into the bombast of his past, however. One recent example was his appearance at Mayor de Blasio’s roundtable on the killing of Eric Garner July 31, when he declared that Dante de Blasio would be a candidate for a chokehold if he weren’t the Mayor’s son, threatened to be Mr. de Blasio’s “worst enemy” if he didn’t bring meaningful change to the NYPD, and prodded Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to “perp-walk” cops who engage in chokeholds on the grounds that it would be a more-effective deterrent than improving training.

Colorful it was, but not likely to actually make a difference aside from stoking cops’ anger and prompting Mr. Sharpton’s journalistic equivalent, the New York Post, to accuse Mr. de Blasio of making him a kind of co-Police Commissioner while running articles under the banner “The War on Cops.”

But the publicity Mr. Sharpton received had a countervailing effect: a backlash among some cops that produced a string of posts on Thee Rant, the website of angry officers past and present, labeling Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch a coward for not firing back. Until finally the union leader, along with Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins, did so in an Aug. 5 press conference at the PBA’s lower Manhattan headquarters.

It was no surprise that Mr. Lynch used the occasion to unload on the Reverend Al: no police-union leader ever hurt himself with his troops by going after the No-Longer-So-Portly Preacher.

Nor, given the exposure he provided Mr. Sharpton, was it a shock that Mr. de Blasio was also a target of Mr. Lynch, who said, “I think the Mayor needs to support New York City’s police officers—unequivocally say it, and unequivocally say resisting arrest hurts everyone, police officers and citizens alike, and will not be tolerated.”

In fact, Mr. de Blasio had offered a strenuous defense of Police Commissioner Bratton following the Reverend Al’s spicier comments, and opted not to stir things up by making strong statements in response to Mr. Lynch and the call by Mr. Mullins for a rulebook slowdown as a form of protest. As much as the PBA leader would like the Mayor to “unequivocally support” his troops, Mr. de Blasio also has to be mindful of the impact the video of the fatal confrontation between Mr. Garner and cops has had on public reaction to the case, especially the apparent use of an NYPD-banned chokehold by Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo to bring Mr. Garner to the ground.

Public perception didn’t turn the PBA’s way after the Medical Examiner’s Office four days earlier pronounced the incident a “homicide” and cited “neck compression” as one of the factors in Mr. Garner’s death.

Mr. Lynch went a step beyond the predictable responses for a PBA leader in branding that finding “political” and not supported by medical evidence. He seemed to imply that someone in the Mayor’s Office had put the fix in on the ME’s report. And while this kind of unsubstantiated charge might be expected of Mr. Sharpton, it’s a bit more dangerous a gambit coming from the head of a police union who in controversial cases is generally asking the public to abide by the conclusions of what are assumed to be unbiased authorities. As Mr. Lynch undoubtedly would be if Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan opted not to bring criminal charges.