In his quest for a safer city, has de Blasio gotten too cozy with the cops?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to NYPD officers while at a January 2017 press conference on crime statistics. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

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It was a subtle reaction, barely visible to most of the audience in a packed courtroom on the fourth floor of One Police Plaza where the police officer who killed Ramarley Graham was standing trial.

The officer, Richard Haste, fatally shot Graham, an 18-year-old African American man, in the bathroom of his Bronx apartment five years ago. In the opening arguments last month, Haste’s attorney, Stuart London, described the 35-year-old officer as a “scapegoat.” The 10-year veteran, whose future in the New York City Police Department now hung in the balance, had reasonable suspicion that Graham was carrying a gun, so he “should not be subject to second-guessing,” the attorney argued. No gun was found on Graham, but a small bag of marijuana was recovered at the scene.

Seated in the second row of the courtroom were members of Graham’s family, including his grandmother, who witnessed the death, and his mother, Constance Malcolm. At the mention of the word “scapegoat,” one of the family members reacted in disgust, smacking her thigh and shaking her head somberly.

Shortly before Graham was killed, Haste observed him “walking with a purpose” out of a bodega near his home on E. 229th St., and pursued him, along with his partner, Sgt. Scott Morris, up to his third-floor apartment to make a possible gun arrest. At the sight of the officers in his apartment, Graham ran in his bathroom, allegedly trying to flush a small bag of marijuana down the toilet. Haste, standing outside the bathroom in the hallway, allegedly shouted, “Show me your hands,” and believing that Graham flinched towards his waistband, yelled, “Gun! Gun!” before firing a single shot to his chest.

A manslaughter charge was brought against Haste, but it was dismissed in 2013 on a technicality. A second grand jury did not indict him, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declined to file federal civil rights charges. The family received a $3.9 million settlement in 2015 from a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, while Haste was placed on desk duty and reportedly has been rewarded with $25,000 in raises since killing Graham.

Their final battleground was this tiny, wood-paneled, windowless NYPD courtroom.

“My purpose is to make sure Richard Haste is fired so that another mom or dad won’t be in this predicament,” Malcolm told reporters gathered outside after the first day of Haste’s hearing. “This man murdered my son for no reason. He broke into my home, he shot my son in front of his brother, a 6-year-old, and his grandmother. I’m not asking for anything special, I’m just asking for justice. I think I deserve this. Ramarley committed no crime, Ramarley didn’t run from anybody, he didn’t point a gun at anybody, so why is my son not here?”

The case – as well as the the July 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island – serve as a reminder that despite New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledges to hold the NYPD accountable, the behavior of police in the city remains a liability as he seeks another four years in office.

De Blasio won his first term in part owing to a message of reforming the NYPD. He had the advantage of entering City Hall at a time when there were never more levels of police oversight – a monitor instituted by a federal judge from the legal fallout over the rise in unconstitutional police stops, as well as the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD created through the City Council’s Community Safety Act. A dramatic reduction in the unconstitutional use of stop-and-frisk policing – which flourished under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration – was already underway, and the decline continued under de Blasio. Despite the fears of conservative critics, crime levels stayed at record lows.

Countering the notion that liberal mayors are weak on crime, de Blasio installed Bill Bratton as his police commissioner, who had great success making the city safer under Rudy Giuliani in the ‘90s. Under de Blasio, Bratton launched a neighborhood policing program, now implemented in 35 of the city’s 77 precincts, to help improve police-community relations that had frayed under Bloomberg and former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.

But critics were enraged that the police officers who killed Graham and Garner seemed to have escaped justice. Like Haste, Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Garner, was also placed on desk duty and reportedly received a $20,000 raise from the NYPD. Police reform activists want to know why the mayor – whose strongest base of support is among black and Latino New Yorkers, who as public advocate once gave the NYPD an “F” grade on his “Transparency Report Card” – is allowing these officers to devalue the lives of community members while their actions go unpunished.

“I think a lot of us were expecting more based on what was campaigned on,” said New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who endorsed de Blasio in 2013 and was a co-sponsor of the Community Safety Act. “The two areas where people are yearning to see some kind of change is in transparency and accountability, and those two things we haven’t seen much movement. In terms of transparency, we’ve probably seen backwards movement.”

Ramarley Graham's family delivers a petition to the U.S. attorney demanding action at Foley Square in 2014. (A Katz/Shutterstock)

Williams’ sentiment is felt among residents across New York City, particularly throughout the minority neighborhoods, and came to a head over the past year when the de Blasio administration and the NYPD began using a relatively obscure state law – Civil Rights Law 50-a – to justify the lack of transparency in revealing whether police officers’ disciplinary records would be made public. According to the law, personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” within police, fire or corrections departments “shall be considered confidential.”

The problem, as police reform advocates see it, is that the city is applying the 50-a law selectively. For one year, from October 2013 – shortly before de Blasio was elected mayor – to October 2014, the Civilian Complaint Review Board would respond to Freedom of Information Law requests pertaining to the complaint histories of specific police officers. An internal audit determined that the employee responding to the FOIL requests violated the law, and the board stopped making the records available.

Roughly seven months after Garner was killed, the Legal Aid Society sued the Civilian Complaint Review Board for refusing to provide a summary of Pantaleo’s disciplinary records. In July 2015, a state Supreme Court judge ordered the board to provide the summary, but both Pantaleo and the review board have appealed, a decision that drew a sharp response from Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr.

“Why would we even have a hearing if they're going to disregard her decision?” Carr said at a press conference in January.

For their part, de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have called on the state Legislature to amend the law. “Without significant changes to this statute, the city remains barred from providing the transparency we deserve,” de Blasio said in October.

Critics say this statement is more a reflection of political expediency than a commitment to transparency. They point to the fact that the NYPD’s Department Advocate’s Office recently stated that they would make the outcome of Haste’s disciplinary trial public, ostensibly reversing the city’s position.

“(De Blasio) rolled back some of the (transparency efforts) by shifting some of the city’s positions around making disciplinary issues for police officers public, when it was never an issue before,” said Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, a senior community organizer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Now all of a sudden it’s private and no longer able to be accessed by the public. He created a problem that did not exist before, and he’s in a space now where he can hide behind this.”

After 12 years under Bloomberg and Kelly in which the unconstitutional use of stop, question and frisk skyrocketed to a peak of more than 700,000 recorded stops in 2011, the prospect of a sudden culture shift in an enormous organization of roughly 35,000 uniformed officers seemed dubious.

A hallmark of de Blasio’s philosophical shift was a promise to improve police-community relations through community or neighborhood policing. The changes have been instituted on a piecemeal basis, however, with only four precincts employing the program at the outset. It has now ramped up to 35 precincts under O’Neill, which is still less than half of the precincts.

“What Commissioner O’Neill has set in place with neighborhood policing is still in its infancy,” de Blasio said at a January press conference. “We expect great things and as it spreads more and more throughout the city we expect that relationship between police and the community to deepen further. We expect our officers to get more and more information. We expect crime to go down further. We have right now the gateway to an even safer New York City.”

There is no direct way to measure a correlation between low crime and neighborhood policing, an approach aimed at fostering trust between police officers and residents, business owners and community organizations through personal interactions. Anecdotal evidence indicates an encouraging response to the program.

“As far as I can tell it’s been positive,” Williams said. “I’m (an elected official), so I do get to see these officers more often than others. I see officers interacting with community members in a more positive way. I’m also getting less complaints than I have before, which is a positive.”

But if the ultimate goal of neighborhood policing is to give communities a stake in keeping their neighborhoods safe, the conversation often shifts back to holding police accountable for their actions. By that standard, New York City has a long way to go. Even some criminologists and policing experts describe police accountability in New York City as a “struggle” more than a defined goal.

“There aren’t very many places in the country that institute accountability as best practice,” said Judith Greene, executive director of Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization that analyzes criminal justice policy reforms. “You have to have a really unique police chief that will allow real police accountability and the right political climate to ever come close to it.”

The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, a longstanding entity with board members chosen by the mayor, police commissioner and City Council, is tasked with investigating police misconduct, but is frequently described as toothless, with the debacle over FOIL requests pertaining to officer discipline records depleting its credibility. The inspector general’s office established by the Community Safety Act is viewed as a step in the right direction, although it is still a government agency under the purview of the city’s Department of Investigation with no civilian input. The federal monitor instituted by the Floyd v. New Yorkcase pertaining to illegal police stops, is overseeing the reform within the NYPD itself – from training to supervision to discipline – and issues periodic progress reports, but also requires no community input.

There are, however, models of community control across the country more in line with what advocates want. Cities such as Seattle and Cleveland have established community police commissions stemming from U.S. Department of Justice consent decrees after a series of incidents in which police used excessive force. These commissions make recommendations on policies and practices related to community and problem-oriented policing, bias-free policing and transparency, and provide reports to the city to provide transparency on police department reforms. Criminal justice experts describe these commissions as the “gold standard,” but they are still relatively new. Seattle’s commission was established in 2013 and Cleveland’s was created in 2015 and it remains to be seen whether they will have a wide-reaching effect on police-community relations.

But in New York City, advocates are paying attention to the fact that those kinds of reforms have yet to gain real traction at City Hall or One Police Plaza.

“What we’ve always been looking for is the ability to hold all of these institutions accountable, and community policing is nothing like community control,” said Akinwole-Bandele. “The ability to have influence over the hiring and firing of personnel within local precincts – even making the commissioner position an elected position – all of these things would contribute to that conversation.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill view an NYPD photo exhibit the department put up for a press conference at the Brooklyn Museum. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

With the flip of the calendar to 2017, and a re-election campaign already kicking into gear, de Blasio has made a concerted effort to convey the message that New York City continues to be perhaps the safest big city in the United States.

Beginning with the monthly crime stats press conference in January, where he touted a 4 percent drop in seven major types of crime from 2015 to 2016 and a record-low 998 total shootings for the year, de Blasio has already made five different policing-related announcements this year, most notably a new contract with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that provides pay raises in precincts employing neighborhood policing.

Despite de Blasio’s managerial missteps and approval ratings that have been below 50 percent, the flurry of public safety announcements reflects an understanding that the road to re-election is made much smoother if crime remains low.

“Aside from the usual New York political dynamics, if you were a Martian looking at (crime in New York City), you would say, what’s the problem?” said Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. “Crime numbers keep going down, and the NYPD is now rolling out their community policing model. Look at the city now, and look at it four, six, eight years ago. Why wouldn’t you want to be in this situation? If you’re just looking at substance, it’s a very different dynamic, and the enforcement mechanisms that exist now compared to even a few years ago are much improved.”

Yet warning signs have emerged recently and over the last year that could present trouble for de Blasio, particularly among blacks and Latino voters, who generally view the mayor more favorably. Black voters give de Blasio a 66 percent approval rating, with Latino voters at 52 percent, according to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll.

For one thing, while the number of recorded police stops has dropped precipitously – to 10,171 recorded in the first nine months of 2016, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union – and the illegal use of stop and frisk increasingly being phased out, 53 percent of those stopped were black and 29 percent were Latino.

“I think a lot of us were expecting more based on what (de Blasio) campaigned on.” – New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams

Police reform advocates were also livid at the deal cut in the summer of 2016 between Bratton and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to table the Right to Know Act, a package of reform measures that had broad support among City Council members, but not from de Blasio or the NYPD. One of those bills would have required officers to identify themselves by name, rank and command after encounters that do not result in arrest or summons. Bratton agreed to implement these changes internally.

“The frequent abuses in people’s most common everyday interactions with police that go unaccounted for are what perpetuate and lead to police brutality and killings,” said Anthonine Pierre, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform. “New York City will fail to address this by pursuing this administrative agreement instead of legislation.”

But most disturbingly, the city reported a 9 percent increase in marijuana arrests by the NYPD from 2015 to 2016, despite de Blasio’s directive to discontinue arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This revelation, combined with the expected crackdown and mass deportations of undocumented immigrants under President Donald Trump, has put the NYPD’s “broken windows” philosophy – the theory, popularized by Bratton, that targeting low-level violations prevents more serious crimes from happening – firmly in the spotlight.

“(Bratton) embraced policies like broken windows policing even at a point in time in New York City when the windows were no longer broken,” said U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, widely considered to be a potential New York City mayoral candidate. “Bill Bratton is a reluctant reformer, and as a result of his selection by Bill de Blasio, some of the changes in culture and accountability have probably taken longer than might otherwise had been expected.”

Immigrant reform advocates generally applaud de Blasio for his defense of New York City’s sanctuary city status against threats from Trump. But some also point to the structural issues presented by the enforcement of broken windows policing that still put the undocumented population at risk, despite the city’s sanctuary status. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement receives fingerprints and identification information for any arrest made in New York City, leaving noncitizens that get arrested particularly vulnerable.

“To the extent that de Blasio is including, very explicitly in his public messaging, concerns over the safety and dignity of immigrants, I think folks think that’s a good thing,” said Michael Velarde, a spokesman for the Immigrant Defense Project, a nonprofit legal and advocacy organization.

While the city’s undocumented population obviously won’t impact the number of votes for or against de Blasio’s re-election, Velarde suggested that the mobilization of the immigrant community against Trump could pay dividends for de Blasio if he puts some policy teeth behind his rhetoric, such as an amnesty program for low-level arrest warrants that are more than 10 years old, or directing the NYPD to issue more civil violations rather than criminal summonses.

“One of the Trump effects is it’s activated a lot of people to get involved in the political process. (De Blasio) was elected the first time on the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ narrative,” Velarde said. “In this case, he’s moving to this other parallel where it’s his vision competing with the Trump vision. In order for the vision of dignity and justice and safety to work, the legwork needs to be done.”

In some ways, the death of Ramarley Graham and the recent discipline hearing for the officer that killed him is a microcosm of the tightrope de Blasio will have to walk as he campaigns for re-election this year – teetering between his progressive reputation as a reformer, and his efforts to portray himself as a loyal ally to the NYPD.

De Blasio’s response to the police killing of Eric Garner – in which he invoked his biracial son, Dante, and pointed to the “painful reality” that those tasked with protecting him could be seen as a threat – elicited a visceral backlash from rank-and-file police officers. Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, responded to the mayor’s comments by saying his fellow officers felt “thrown under the bus.” Ever since that instance, de Blasio has been overly cautious in how he discusses controversial policing incidents that impact minority communities.

Graham’s mother, Constance Malcolm, and her family have sharply criticized de Blasio for refusing to meet with the family to hear their side of the story. De Blasio’s response was that, since he oversees the police department that’s bringing charges against Haste, “it’s not appropriate to meet with the family members.” Never mind that the mayor acted swiftly to sit down with tennis star James Blake in the fall of 2015 after a plainclothes police officer threw him to the ground in a case of mistaken identity.

Malcolm, who supported de Blasio’s candidacy in 2013, cannot reconcile this discrepancy, and said she probably won’t support him for re-election. She thinks about her son, Chinnor, who witnessed a police officer’s bullet pierce his brother Ramarley’s heart, and worries about the effect the outcome of Haste’s disciplinary trial – which could take several months to determine – will have on his future interactions with police.

“If they try to stop him, what if he has a flashback or something? If they try to rough him up, I don’t know what his response is going to be,” Malcolm said in an interview the day after Haste’s trial. “He asked me yesterday after the case, ‘Mommy that’s it? He’s not going to jail?’ And I told him, ‘Son I don’t know. I really don’t know.’”