In the past several weeks, the New York Police Department has been confronted with a scourge it hasn’t had to face for years: critical press coverage. Judging from recent headlines, New York’s relationship to its cops has been changing subtly, but unmistakably. Indeed, the response to this week’s heavy-handed crackdown against the Occupy Wall Street protests serves as the crescendo of a period of mounting public skepticism. But this is one threat that the NYPD simply isn’t prepared for. After a decade of being handed a privileged position in the city, New York police has forgotten how to defend itself to the public.
The New York Police Department sacrificed much on 9/11, and its reward came in the currency of public trust and admiration. Amidst widespread expectations that crime would rise and that the city would be struck again, Ray Kelly, the department’s 70-year old chief, earned massive popularity. Though he has never run for elected office and has hardly ever said anything about his politics, he has nonetheless consistently been the top choice in polls asking New Yorkers who should be the city’s next mayor. Kelly has also been a smart enough manager to recognize the advantageous terms of the new social contract that his department has been offered: Keep crime down, prevent another terrorist attack, and the NYPD would be given a free hand by the public. The police, needless to say, didn’t turn down the offer.
This new post-9/11 social contract has had its own share of successes. Unlike in Chicago, or Washington D.C., New York’s tough, off-the-map neighborhoods aren’t forced to fend for themselves; the NYPD has enough resources and clout to offer law-enforcement everywhere. But predictably, as the New York police was handed greater unchecked power, accusations of abuse around the city began to follow. Until recently, however, the department managed to evade the consequences of those abuses. And so the public’s esteem for the department mostly endured.
In the NYPD’s hard push to protect its own reputation, it had two primary accomplices. The first was the local press. The police department always wants to trade access for positive coverage, and it has an Orwellian-named Deputy Commissioner of “Public Information” to aid it in that venture. Most of the New York press seemed eager to play along during Mayor Mike Bloomberg's first two terms, as in the generally tepid press response to the city’s rough and evidently illegal handling of demonstrators (and a few passerbys rounded up with them) at the 2004 GOP convention, the shrugged-off reports of secret ticketing quotas, and the way newspapers have let Kelly’s chief spokesman off the hook on a long line of misleading or outright false assertions.
The other accomplice is Mayor Mike Bloomberg himself. Bloomberg has presented himself as a stalwart defender of the First Amendment, but there has always been a streak of authoritarianism in him. As Bloomberg’s sympathetic biographer Joyce Purnick explained, “he has no patience with civil liberties when they bump up against what he sees as a public good.” The NYPD has also benefited from Bloomberg’s penchant for measuring and quantifying all of his policy goals. With pressure from the top to meet certain quotas, the police have felt empowered and pressured into aggressively accosting citizens in poorer neighborhoods, often through so-called stop-and-frisks, in order to generate easy arrests. Police have downgraded serious crimes to keep their numbers down, and even discouraged crime reports to help ensure the record-low crime stats stay that way. So long as the numbers stay down, the police can count on the support of the mayor, and of the city's editorial boards.
The overly-aggressive response to the Wall Street “occupation”—which began with arresting dozens on the Brooklyn Bridge, proceeded to involve the pepper spraying of protesters, and concluded with a forced media blackout and the arrest of several reporters during the final, middle-of-the-night militarized “clean up” and Thursday's "day of action"—may yet tip the scales toward a more normalized relationship between the city and the NYPD. It is the culmination of a scandal-ridden year. A partial list of the past year's troubles includes the trial of two cops accused of rape; a leak-hindered internal affairs investigation into a ticket fixing conspiracy that some rank-and-file officers responded to by spitting on lawyers in the courthouse; a belated outcry over the frequently intrusive stop-and-frisk policy focused on poor and minority neighborhoods; revelations of the department’s secret intelligence program to collect information on Muslims; and the rough arrest of a black City Council member at a parade.
If the city has stopped accepting the police department’s spin, it’s not least because new observers have been able to expose their flimsiness. When the NYPD claimed that an off-screen threat showed that Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna had responded appropriately in a video showing him using pepper spray on penned-in Occupy protesters, multiple cell phone videos of the event surfaced almost instantly to prove otherwise.
Much of the city is realizing that their police department is overdue for reforms. “As an institutional matter it would be good to have some sort of term limits for the Commissioner, who in some ways is more powerful for the mayor because the checks and balances we have under our system in New York City really allow for the commissioner to have virtually limitless power over law enforcement,” says John Jay professor and former police office and prosecutor Eugene O’Donnell, who stressed that the problem was endemic to the office, not particular to Kelly. “And the longer the person is in office, the more power tends to accrue to the office.”
But hardly anyone is less apt to be sympathetic to that argument than Bloomberg, the man who changed the law to purchase himself a third term. Indeed, the mayor has given firm backing to Kelly since taking office, and there’s been little otherwise in the way of civilian oversight. (City Council hearings on the department were an excellent reminder that civilian oversight is only as good as the civilians involved in it.)
So while the prospects for long-term change are improving, in the short term, high-handed arrogance may continue to be the order of the day. Good sense would suggest that City Hall should begin pursuing another strategy. "The police should be bending over backwards to facilitate the press," says O'Donnell. "Suspicions immediately arise when the press is being pushed aside. Even good policing comes under suspicion when the press is not allowed to see it happen." But far from apologizing for the 20-plus journalist arrests this week, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson and Bloomberg Spokesman Stu Loeser have scoffed at journalists operating without the protection of an NYPD-issued press pass—never mind that five journalists with the rather difficult-to-obtain credentials were also arrested.
That response was typical of the imperious attitude of City Hall and the NYPD in recent years. Bloomberg and Kelly may not yet think it's time for a change, but increasingly, the public does.
Harry Siegel is a former editor of New York Sun, New York Press, and Politico, and co-author of Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life (Encounter Books, 2005).