De Blasio Still Drawing Criticism for NYPD Snub During State of the City Address

Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking heat from police reform advocates.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking heat from police reform advocates.
Credit: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

Before Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered his State of the City address on Tuesday, his office let it be known that hizzoner would be focusing on affordable-housing proposals.

And he did — he laid out some ambitious goals, like adding or preserving 200,000 affordable units in the five boroughs, and providing free legal services (under certain circumstances) for tenants facing landlord harassment.

But de Blasio virtually ignored an issue that everyone else in the city has been talking about a whole lot — policing — and he's taking some flak for the omission.

Police Reform Organizing Project president Bob Gangi believes the mayor missed an opportunity, following months of protests over policing practices set off by the death of Eric Garner last summer, to mark a clear break with the past.

"This is the first time in the history of the city, maybe the history of the country, where policing has become the foremost social-justice issue of the day," Gangi says.

Gangi said he was "disappointed, but not particularly surprised" that the mayor's only mention of policing was anodyne praise for the department, which has been under increasing scrutiny in recent months.

Gangi was far from alone. Michael Skolnik, with the Justice League NYC, told the New York Observer that leaving policing issues out of his address was a "glaring omission" on de Blasio's part. Kirsten John Foy, Northeast regional director of the National Action Network, which has helped organize many of the largest police protests in recent months, told Capital New York the speech was "disappointing to say the least."

The murders of police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in December exposed a rift between the police and the administration that has only recently begun to mend. After officers turned their backs on the mayor at the funerals for the two slain officers — and effected an enforcement slowdown that amounted to a near insurrection — relations between City Hall and One Police Plaza were at historic lows.

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a vocal police reform advocate and usually a de Blasio ally, hinted at what might have held de Blasio back. Addressing the demands for changes in policing policy — like the "broken windows" strategy of aggressively targeting minor crimes — could have set back the rapprochement that seems to be under way between the mayor and his police force.

"You have to do it in a way that doesn't reopen some of the wounds that have been healing," Williams told the Wall Street Journal, "but there's no doubt about it that the mayor was elected because of his promises on police reform."

Despite the lapse, Gangi thinks the current climate offers a rare opportunity to focus public attention — and political pressure — on de Blasio, and he doesn't believe the moment has faded.

"What our policy goal is, and not just ours, but the entire police reform movement, is to continue to put pressure on de Blasio to make sweeping changes in law enforcement practices," Gangi says.

There will likely be more opportunities in the future. An ongoing attempt to win the release of the Garner grand jury records has the potential to reignite public anger. Some observers suspected from the start that Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney, had helped steer the grand jury away from indicting Daniel Pantaleo, the officer whose chokehold killed Garner in July. Questions remain about how evidence was presented, and about what charges were available to the jury to begin with.

If the testimony and other records are ultimately released and show that Donovan was giving Pantaleo gentle treatment, there could be a new wave of demonstrations. And then there's Donovan himself, who is planning a run for Congress in a campaign that will almost certainly involve discussions of the Garner case.

With all of that going on, Gangi says, the topic is one the mayor won't be able to ignore in the future. "The political landscape is shifting," he says.

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