In recent days, New York Police Department officers have violently thrown protesters to the ground, arrested journalists, maced a state senator, and used a car door to strike a man standing in the street. In one video that circulated on social media, a police officer removed the face mask of a black man, whose hands were in the air, to pepper-spray him. There is abundant evidence that the NYPD has escalated confrontations with protesters who have been agitating against police brutality, and there are a number of documented instances of misconduct. And even in this age of livestreamed protest, there are surely other instances of unprovoked aggression that have gone undocumented.
Asked about a video showing two police cars plowing through a crowd in Brooklyn, Mayor Bill de Blasio was unambiguous: It was actually the protesters’ fault. Although he described the video as “upsetting,” de Blasio said it was “inappropriate for protesters to surround a police vehicle and threaten police officers.” The officers, he continued, had no choice but to “get out” of an “impossible” predicament. “If the protesters had just gotten out of the way, we wouldn’t be talking about this situation,” he said.
It was de Blasio at his most obtuse, no small accomplishment given his seven bumbling years as mayor. He had surely seen video that proved that his description of events was inaccurate—the police were not surrounded; they chose to drive through a crowd. Later, he praised police officers for displaying “restraint” over the weekend. The NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association, possibly the nastiest police union in the country, repaid his kindness by doxxing his daughter, Chiara, who was arrested while protesting in Manhattan on Sunday evening. The Sergeants Benevolent Society tweeted out an internal arrest report, which contained her driver’s license information and address, something the NYPD does not usually do.
De Blasio has since tried to shift course. Perhaps sensing that the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a habitual line-stepper, had finally gone too far, he condemned the officers who drove into a crowd and demanded the investigation of another who drew his gun on protesters in Union Square. But it was too late. De Blasio’s abject deference to the cops has been the crowning failure of a miserable coronavirus season, which began with the mayor bungling the city’s initial response to the pandemic and insisting on maintaining his ridiculous regimen at his gym in Park Slope, even as everyone else entered lockdown.
His recent comments are all the more infuriating given that police reform was the centerpiece of his first campaign for mayor in 2013. An ad featuring his biracial son, Dante, was widely credited with sealing the deal in a competitive field. “I want to tell you a little bit about Bill de Blasio,” his son says, sitting in the family’s kitchen. “He’s the only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years,” he continues, citing de Blasio’s pledge to end stop and frisk. “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they lived or what they look like, and I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad.”
Police reform was a part of de Blasio’s first term, too. He scaled back the aggressive policing of the Bloomberg years, reduced marijuana arrests, instituted a community policing program, and implemented implicit bias training. After Eric Garner was killed by a police officer on Staten Island in 2014, he gave an emotional speech, saying, “I can only imagine. I couldn’t help but immediately think what it would mean for me to lose Dante.”
But that was “the beginning of the end of de Blasio’s time as a committed police reformer,” as Politico reported on Sunday. The police unions were furious, openly rebelling against him. When two officers were shot and killed later that year, police officers turned their back on de Blasio, both at the hospital where the officers were taken and at their funerals.
De Blasio has spent the six years since in apparent terror of the police. Every time the NYPD has crossed the line, de Blasio has either waffled or sat on his hands. He has added over 1,000 cops to the force and endorsed “broken windows” policing. “It’s clear to me that the post-traumatic stress from 2014 has impaired the mayor’s perception of reality,” City Council Member Ritchie Torres told Politico. “It clearly was the decisive turning point. Since then, he governs in fear of his own police department.”
The irony is that he is as hated by police officers now as he was in 2014. Earlier this year, after an officer was shot, the Sergeants Benevolent Association tweeted, “Mayor DeBlasio, the members of the NYPD are declaring war on you! We do not respect you, DO NOT visit us in hospitals. You sold the NYPD to the vile creatures, the 1% who hate cops but vote for you. NYPD cops have been assassinated because of you. This isn’t over, Game on!”
If there was ever evidence that police departments are rogue forces out of control of civilian governments, surely this was it. When the protests started, de Blasio could have seized the moment to sympathize with the protesters and demand reform and greater accountability. He could have used his own experience of clashing with the police unions as a lesson for other mayors and for the country as a whole. He could have at least acknowledged the reality on the streets, a reality that was evident to the whole world.
Instead, de Blasio, not unlike Donald Trump, shrank from sight. Over the weekend, he tweeted that he was driving around the city to check on how police were treating protesters and vice versa. This was city leadership as performance art. Unable to convey that he was actually in charge of the city, he presented himself as somehow omnipresent. He displayed all the authority of a substitute teacher.
De Blasio is one of the most perplexing elected officials in America, incapable of making the right choice even when it’s staring him in the face and everyone is screaming in his ear to just do it. Close the schools. Stay home, don’t go to the gym. And speak up against police brutality, as you did in the past—the police are going to loathe you either way. De Blasio has had a mixed record in office, but he will always be remembered for his cravenness and his stupidity in this moment, when New York needed him most.