New York Times
DEC. 30, 2014


Police Unions’ Leaders Air Grievances in 2-Hour Meeting With de Blasio

By MATT FLEGENHEIMER and J. DAVID GOODMAN

Mayor Bill de Blasio, moving to negotiate the gravest challenge of his one-year tenure, met on Tuesday with police union leaders who have been sharply critical of him since the shooting deaths of two New York City officers more than a week ago.

The extraordinary two-hour meeting, at the new Police Academy in Queens, amounted to a private airing of grievances between union officials who have long been skeptical of the mayor and an administration that has lately been upended by the killings and their aftermath.

The gathering, to which Mr. de Blasio had invited the union officials, appeared to yield no concrete results, providing no immediate balm for the fractious relationship between the mayor and his police force.

“Our thought here today is that actions speak louder than words, and time will tell,” said Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who has been perhaps the most vocal critic of Mr. de Blasio in recent weeks.

The meeting produced a series of notable moments, placing the mayor face to face with his most strident detractors — flanked by top administration officials — with no clear objective beyond improving the recent tenor. Among the unions’ complaints were the wide latitude given to protesters in recent weeks and the mayor’s relationship with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

At one point, according to people familiar with the gathering, the head of the detectives’ union gave Mr. de Blasio a lecture on public relations, noting the significance of a mayor’s comments on policing.

The mayor, in turn, urged attendees to consult his past comments on the police, suggesting they would find nothing disparaging.

Mr. de Blasio emphasized his common ground with the unions, highlighting his reservations about a City Council bill requiring officers to identify themselves during exchanges with civilians and to give a reason for the encounters. He also said antipolice vitriol from protesters was unacceptable and noted that he had brought in a highly respected commissioner, William J. Bratton.

The conversations from the meeting were described as blunt but not impolite, with a focus on the safety of both officers and the New Yorkers they are asked to protect.

“There was no yelling,” said Al O’Leary, a spokesman for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest police union, “and there was no laughing.”

Some officials suggested that the length alone was a signal that the sides could communicate as professionals. One person noted that pastries were provided for the meeting, which occurred in a room on the academy’s eighth floor, but that despite the duration of the sit-down, the food was not touched.

No immediate resolutions were apparent. The mayor did not engage the union leaders when they mentioned Mr. Sharpton, according to a person familiar with the meeting. When the unions mentioned the recent protest from officers who turned their backs to the mayor at the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos, the mayor acknowledged that he must find a way to “turn them back around,” in the person’s words, but did not specify how that might happen.

“I was expecting more,” a union official who was in the room said. “In fairness to the mayor, he is asking for conversation to move forward.”

But when the discussion ended, the official said, “we were all scratching our heads over what is getting solved.”

The gathering was perhaps the mayor’s most significant attempt to defuse tensions with officers. Over the last week, Mr. de Blasio has largely declined to address his critics, avoiding reporters and focusing his public remarks on the slain officers’ families and the need to unite the city.

Phil Walzak, the mayor’s press secretary, said the meeting “focused on building a productive dialogue, and identifying ways to move forward together.”

Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bratton left without speaking to reporters. The mayor was also joined by other top police officials, including James P. O’Neill, the chief of department, and Benjamin B. Tucker, the first deputy commissioner. First Deputy Mayor Anthony E. Shorris also attended.

The meeting was distinct from labor discussions with the unions. Three of the five police unions have already reached tentative labor agreements with the administration; the city is approaching arbitration proceedings with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

Officials with the administration seemed to bet that some of the union leaders might act as peacekeepers, or at least supply more measured voices, in the conflict with the patrolmen’s union.

However, in an email to members on Tuesday, Roy T. Richter, president of the Captains’ Endowment Association, said that he would allow the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to “lead any conversation.” He added that he stood “in solidarity with them as they express raw outrage against the forces that caused the coldblooded assassination of our two brother police officers.”

Mr. Richter compared the emotional climate of the day to that immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He wrote that he had met privately with Mr. de Blasio — “at his request” — just before Christmas “to give him a blunt critique of the hostile antipolice environment” in the city.

Mr. Richter seemed to express disappointment with the decision by some officers to turn their backs to Mr. de Blasio while he spoke at Officer Ramos’s funeral on Saturday. Mr. Richter acknowledged, however, that he understood officers’ anger.

At the coming funeral of Officer Wenjian Liu, who along with Officer Ramos was killed on Dec. 20, “the appropriate protest is not a sign or turning away from mourners, or people the family has asked to speak,” Mr. Richter wrote, “but rather cold, steely silence.”

Many of the rank and file have long been wary of the mayor, who has pledged to reshape the department and campaigned last year on a platform of curbing the aggressive use of stop-and-frisk tactics.

After the shooting, Mr. Lynch suggested responsibility for the deaths “starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.”

Officers, led by union officials, first turned their backs to Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bratton at Woodhull Hospital as the two prepared to address the public hours after the shooting. Some officers reprised the protest at Officer Ramos’s funeral, drawing rebukes from several elected officials.

Even before the killings, union leaders distributed a letter allowing officers to request that the mayor not attend their funerals in the event of a line-of-duty death.

Some officers were particularly bothered by Mr. de Blasio’s comments earlier this month after a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against a white police officer in the case of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who died after a police chokehold on Staten Island in July.

The mayor said at the time that he had advised his son, Dante, who is biracial, to “take special care” in any police encounter. Union leaders said the mayor had implied that officers were to be feared. Mr. Bratton has defended the remarks, saying on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he had interacted with “African-Americans of all classes” who had expressed the same concern as the mayor.

Mr. de Blasio did not apologize for any of his comments in recent weeks; nor was he asked to, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Reporting was contributed by Al Baker, Michael M. Grynbaum, Benjamin Mueller and Nikita Stewart.