New York Times
December 4, 2014


In Garner Case, Mayor de Blasio Strives to Back Protesters and Police

By MATT FLEGENHEIMER and J. DAVID GOODMAN

Mayor Bill de Blasio swept to victory last year with a promise to salve the wounds of New Yorkers who distrusted the police. His critics warned that crime would soar again.

So far, neither has happened.

Now, as protests over the Eric Garner case course through New York City and beyond, Mr. de Blasio’s pledge to bridge the police community divide has become, with escalating urgency, perhaps the foremost challenge of his mayoralty. It is a cause with an audience from Ferguson, Mo., to Capitol Hill to the city police precincts, where some rank­and­file officers remain wary of the mayor’s calls for reform.

On Thursday, he outlined a series of planned changes in police training, a day after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who in July performed a chokehold on Mr. Garner, an unarmed black man who died after the confrontation.

The police will be taught strategies to control ego and adrenaline and urged to suppress profanity, city officials said. Officers will be exposed to the culture of the communities they are asked to patrol and given new guidance on how to persuade suspects to comply with arrest without the use of force.

“People need to know that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives,” Mr. de Blasio said at the new Police Academy in Queens. “We are all responsible now,” he added. “The weight of history can’t be our excuse.”

The Garner episode has forced Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, atop a tightrope of sorts — balancing sympathy for protesters with support for the officers in charge of keeping the city safe.

As the case laid bare even before the grand jury’s decision, the relationship between the police and many of those they serve remains as fraught as ever.

On the heels of the protests in Ferguson, where another white officer was cleared by a grand jury after a fatal encounter with an unarmed black man, community leaders in New York and elsewhere have professed a flagging faith in the justice system.

Others have chafed at the pace of change under Mr. de Blasio and questioned whether his proposals, like a pilot program to place body cameras on officers and a less stringent marijuana policy, would prove sufficient.

With the mayor’s blessing, officers continue to pursue low­level crime aggressively as part of a “broken windows” strategy long championed by Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. Mr. Garner had been accused of selling loose cigarettes, a subject of
community complaints.

“I feel for the mayor; he’s in a bind,” Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx said. “On the ground, I’m sensing a level of anger and a level of suspicion toward the N.Y.P.D. that I’ve never seen before.”

Mr. de Blasio has spoken passionately of the pain wrought by the Garner case, repeatedly invoking his son, Dante, who is biracial, when describing his reaction. But he has not explicitly denounced the grand jury decision, as fellow elected officials have.

In an effort to trumpet accomplishments on police issues, the mayor moved up a series of events this week, including an announcement about reduced crime rates, to coincide with the Garner decision.

While many lawmakers have welcomed the changes announced so far, and have acknowledged that cultural shifts at the department will take time, Mr. Garner’s example has inspired pitched calls for more immediate action.

“Retraining is nothing to sneeze at,” Councilman Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn said. “I think the frustration is, what can we do today?”

Mr. Williams has also been critical of the police over the death last month of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man shot by an officer patrolling a public housing staircase in Brooklyn with his gun drawn. Mr. Williams, as well as civil rights leaders, have tied that shooting to Mr. Garner’s death as twin examples of a disregard for the lives of black men.

The episodes have intensified the spotlight on the most scrutinized relationship in city government: that of the mayor and his police commissioner.

In many ways, Mr. Bratton’s return to New York, after serving in the job under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, has been a sharp departure from his tenure in the 1990s.