Wall Street Journal
Dec. 4, 2014 | 8:55 PM

NYC Mayor Draws Praise, Criticism for Response in Garner Case

Giuliani Calls de Blasio’s Remarks Racist; Others Say He Has Been Calming Force


Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has pledged to heal relations between police and minority communities, is getting mixed reviews for how he has responded to the Eric Garner case, among the most racially divisive episodes of his tenure.

A grand jury this week declined to indict a New York police officer for using an apparent chokehold when attempting to arrest Mr. Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes in July on Staten Island. Mr. Garner later died.

The Democratic mayor has drawn plaudits from some for his portrayal of the case in personal terms—his wife is black, and they have two children—and by framing the incident as part of “centuries of racism.”

But others have criticized him for the way he has spoken about the grand jury’s decision.

In an interview Thursday on a Fox News program, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Mr. de Blasio’s remarks about the case were racist because he said the mayor avoided talking about black-on-black crime. Mr. Giuliani, a Republican, said Mr. de Blasio and the Rev. Al Sharpton, an ally of the mayor, were “tearing down respect for a criminal justice system that goes back to England in the 11th century.”

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, criticized the mayor for not voicing support for Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who wrestled Mr. Garner to the ground. “We did not hear that you cannot go out and break the law. What we did not hear is that you cannot resist arrest. That’s a crime,” Mr. Lynch said. “If the mayor wants to change policies, and wants us to stand down against crime, then say that.”

Mr. de Blasio defended himself Thursday afternoon, saying he had spent this year discussing his “immense respect” for the New York Police Department. “I never get caught up in what critics say, particularly if they are doing it for their own agenda,” he said.

“The people of the city saw a man die who shouldn’t have died. It’s as simple as that,” Mr. de Blasio said. “It’s important to speak to that reality, particularly when it’s not an isolated reality.”

The mayor has won praise for the way the city has handled the thousands of protesters who marched in response to the grand jury’s decision. Dozens were arrested, but there were no widespread incidents of violence or property damage.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he had called Mr. de Blasio. “I commended him for his words yesterday,” Mr. Obama said, and for the way “New Yorkers have been engaging in peaceful protests and being productive.”

George Arzt, a longtime Democratic political consultant, said Mr. de Blasio had helped defuse a potentially tense situation. “He is a calming figure and has done a really good job.” Mr. Arzt said.

Public Advocate Letitia James said she believed Mr. de Blasio had “set the right tone” but that he must do more to overhaul police policies that treat minorities unfairly and clog up the criminal-justice system.

Mr. de Blasio said Thursday morning that he intended to pursue policy changes to prevent a repeat of the Garner case.

“We lost a good man in Eric Garner who should not have been lost,” he said. “But what I’m trying to help us all think about is—there’s 8.4 million of us, the mission for all of us is to change this city.”

Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, earned praise from many political observers for reducing racial tension following the Giuliani era at City Hall. But Mr. Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, also faced criticism for what some called an overuse of a police tactic known as stop-and-frisk.

Mr. de Blasio focused much of his mayoral campaign last year on the issue of stop-and-frisk, and he vowed to reduce the number of such stops.

But, said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, “One of the big lessons of the Garner episode is that you couldn’t solve everything by ending stop-and-frisk and that the grievances in communities of color run very deep.”

Others said Mr. de Blasio was part of the problem.

Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat and a former city councilman, said the mayor was wrong to hire William Bratton as his police commissioner and for supporting the so-called broken-windows philosophy of policing. It encourages officers to enforce minor infractions of the law in hopes of preventing serious ones.

Mr. Barron also criticized the mayor for not taking a stance on the grand jury’s decision. “He should have said this is a gross miscarriage of justice. He should have said the video didn’t lie,” Mr. Barron said. “You can’t sit here and protect [the justice system] and then act like you’re progressive. That’s hypocrisy.”

The mayor, however, has repeatedly said he didn’t believe it was his role to opine on the decision.

—Adam Janos and Byron Tau contributed to this article.