Just ahead of a beautiful August weekend in New York, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the force, was dispatched to local TV outlet NY1 to contradict the head of the city’s police union. It would be the first weekend since Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner with an illegal choke hold in 2014, was at last fired after a protracted, five-year legal process. In response to Pantaleo’s discharge, Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association (a labor organization representing 50,000 active and retired NYPD officers), warned New Yorkers to brace for a police slowdown. “Now it is time for every police officer in this city to make their own choice,” said Lynch in a statement. “We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job. We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”
New Yorkers are used to protest, especially over the last few years. There was the occupation of JFK airport in response to the anti-Muslim travel ban, and the marches over the Brooklyn Bridge to demand an end to family separation at the border, and, of course, the Women’s March and all its offshoots, including the arrests of the march organizers during a women’s strike outside Trump Tower. New Yorkers encountered multiple acts of civil disobedience—the blocking of major roadways, the taking over of Grand Central Station—after the Staten Island district attorney failed to secure an indictment against Pantaleo back in 2014. Now the cops would stage a protest of their own.
Not all cops, of course. “Listen, I love the union,” Chief Monahan told NY1 viewers. “Patty Lynch, I’ve known him for years. I respect Patty, the whole PBA. But the message to cops to, you know, ‘slow down’ taking an arrest? That’s dangerous.”
By “dangerous,” Monahan meant, for the cops. If you hesitate while making an arrest, the chief said, “you’re gonna put your own lives in danger.”
Yet police slowdowns haven’t made the city any less safe. As Monahan himself went on to say, this year is on track to be the third in a row with fewer than 300 homicides and 800 shootings. Despite that, union president Lynch sees a much more terrifying New York now with one less lawbreaking officer in it.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill fired Pantaleo August 19, after a departmental trial found the 13-year veteran officer guilty of using the illegal choke hold, killing Garner. In letting Pantaleo go, O’Neill had betrayed all New York cops, Lynch lamented. “Our police officers are in distress—not because they have a difficult job, not because they put themselves in danger, but because they realize they are abandoned. The captain has jumped ship. The mayor has told him to do it, and the streets are falling into chaos.”
The official police union twitter account put it more simply: “#JobIsDead.”
This hashtagged response was overdramatic and roundly mocked. Yet it still correctly assessed the mood of many people around the country—those who have become too used to watching a police officer kill someone on video. When a law enforcement system is designed to police itself, and when it so rarely produces anything like accountability, that also signals the dead end of that job.
This slowdown, meant as a protest against an alleged “anti-police” environment, offers an argument for how inessential police can be to maintaining public safety. While members of law enforcement were in the tabloids anonymously warning of a “Pantaleo effect,” the city went on. In the week that passed after Lynch threatened a slowdown, arrests and summons are down compared to this time last year, but so are major crimes, (down 20 percent, according to the NYPD).
In a way, this is just a reprise of another Pantaleo-inspired slowdown. In 2014, two weeks after a New York grand jury’s failure to indict Pantaleo inspired large protests, two NYPD officers were shot in their patrol car. The seven-week slowdown that followed, according to a later data analysis, also showed a drop in reported major crimes along with a drop in arrests for minor offenses—those defined as “quality of life” issues that police have been told to target lest disorder reign. That was the idea behind the largely discredited “broken windows theory” of policing, like arresting Eric Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. The slowdowns that followed his death show what a city without broken windows policing can look like.
A week before this summer’s slowdown, as O’Neill was still weighing the recommendation to dismiss Pantaleo, Attorney General William Barr offered some Trump-inspired federal backup. The problem, according to Barr, in a speech before the Fraternal Order of Police, isn’t police violence but “anti-police” sentiment. “Whenever there is a confrontation involving the use of force by police, they automatically start screaming for the officers’ scalps, regardless of the facts,” Barr said.
Yes, abuse could happen, said Barr, but he sandwiched this acknowledgement in a call for total obedience to law enforcement. “[W]hat stands between chaos and carnage on the one hand, and the civilized and tranquil society we all yearn for, is the thin blue line of law enforcement. You are the ones manning the ramparts—day in, and day out.” The current leader of the Justice Department blamed that “chaos and carnage” on elected officials who don’t forcefully tell the people they represent to always obey the police.
For Police Union President Lynch, that elected foe is New York’s mayor. Bill de Blasio was all but absent from the city this summer, off on the presidential campaign trail, pleasing no one with his claims that he had reformed the NYPD. Anti-police violence activists, too, saw de Blasio as an obstacle, and in July some interrupted his last turn on the debate stage with demands to “Fire Pantaleo.” The mayor’s campaign trail promises of a chastened, reformed police force—after de-escalation and implicit bias training, and donning bodycams—were as convincing as his primary bid.
The police unions have now fully focused their ire on both de Blasio and O’Neill. Wednesday, the PBA passed a vote of “no confidence” on both, demanding the commissioner resign and asking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to give the boot to de Blasio. The Sergeants Benevolent Association (as distinct from the Police Benevolent Association, representing 7,000 NYPD sergeants) official Twitter account has been roasting the mayor in all-caps fashion. “YOU PHONY BASTARD. What happen [sic] to Eric Garner is on YOU & BRATTON” it blared after de Blasio did a CNN town hall this week. When the mayor tweeted out a pledge to bring the perpetrator of an alleged anti-Semitic hate crime to justice, SBA hit “send” on a tweet that read, in part, “WE will find his attacker? Mayor DeBlasio YOU are not part of the WE. YOU are NOT NYPD NEVER were, NEVER will be.”
All this makes it even more bizarre that the NYPD have realized de Blasio’s fantasy of a reformed NYPD by giving New York the gift of this slowdown summer.
Should this protest become permanent, and New York’s finest abandon the kind of policing that took Eric Garner’s life, they will help make the case that law enforcement officers are not what makes a city safe. To pretend such police work is necessary empowers those who wish to protect police who cause the harm.