The Year in NYPD Public Relations Disasters
C.S. Muncy for the Village Voice
This year has not been a good one for the NYPD. The department has found itself in an uphill PR battle for pretty much all of 2014, starting as far back as December 2013 with then-Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's announcement that Bill Bratton, considered to be the architect of the NYPD's much-reviled "broken windows" policing policy, would be returning to the force as its commissioner. There was the death of Eric Garner, who was killed when Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo used an apparent chokehold while trying to arrest him for selling illegal cigarettes on Staten Island. There was the shooting death of Akai Gurley at the hands of a rookie police officer. And then there was the Garner grand jury decision and the subsequent protests. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the NYPD will probably be happier than anyone to see the ball drop on New Year's Eve.
But this isn't to say that the NYPD hasn't tried to paint itself in a better light. It's just that they happen to be terrible at it. New York's finest have just not been able to keep their collective foot out of their collective mouth. Time and again this year, the department's best intentions managed to turn into exploding cigars. Here is a selection from the NYPD's greatest hits of 2014:
April 22: When #MyNYPD asked people for their best po-po selfies
At their best, cops fight crime. That means if you're spending time with an officer of the law, you're probably receiving help after a traumatic event or getting busted for doing something bad. At their worst, they can be overly aggressive, even violent, while pursuing even the most innocuous of offenders. Or non-offenders.
But do any of those moments -- good or bad -- sound like prime photo-ops for civilian-with-cop selfies?
Apparently they do to the NYPD's communications team. "Do you have a photo w/ a member of the NYPD?" they asked, via Twitter. "Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD. It may be featured on our Facebook."
This didn't end well.
— Occupy Wall Street (@OccupyWallStNYC) April 22, 2014
After Occupy Wall Street's Twitter account kicked off the action, others were quick to join the fun. "NYPD has you covered" if you "need a mammogram," said @guru0509, posting a photo of officers pushing a woman's chest. Another tweeter described the "free massages" offered by officers, accompanied by a photo of police shoving a man against a car.
"If you can't walk, don't worry, the NYPD will carry you," tweeted @MoreAndAgain. "How helpful!"
— DefendedInTheStreets (@KimaniFilm) April 22, 2014
Despite the backfire, NYPD deputy chief Kim Royster doubled down on the campaign. "Twitter provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange," she said, in a statement. "This is an open dialogue good for our city."
December 1: When anonymous sources complained that activists were too good at the internet
After learning that former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for shooting Mike Brown, protesters in New York took to the streets for days to protest what they considered systemic racism in the country's law enforcement. Almost immediately, anonymous police sources complained to the New York Post that those darn teens, "armed with untraceable 'burner phones,' " were using social media and online messaging boards to spontaneously organize demonstrations throughout the city that were impossible to keep track of.
But by whining about the "anarchist techie brats" running rings around them with their Wi-Fi, the anonymous sources also casually admitted that the NYPD uses its counterterrorism unit to monitor domestic activists online -- and that the department's not doing a great job of it, either.
The response -- to what was basically a press release for good-guy cops overwhelmed by wealthy anarchist villains -- involved both cynicism and small cheers of victory:
Cop perspective: Protesters give/take orders, but are also rich techie anarchists. @AnonyOps
— effigies (@effigies) December 2, 2014
Oh, these youngunz with their hoolahoops and their smartphones and MacBook Airs. http://t.co/FI8RFBWdpW
— Bill Lamb (@zachvat) December 1, 2014
One blogger laughed at the article, saying that the NYPD's "counterterrorism squad can't even track peaceful protesters operating publicly, to say nothing of terrorists operating in secret." Another condemned "how routine the slippery, politically motivated manipulation of the term 'terrorism' has become."
Shortly after the Eric Garner grand jury decision, NYPD chief Joanne Jaffe sent out a tweet aimed at a public already furious over the Ferguson decision. "The #NYPD is committed to rebuilding public trust," she said. "#Wehearyou."
The hashtag, predictably, backfired. "like you heard #EricGarner beg for his life?" asked Franchesca Ramsey, tweeting to 52,000 followers. "A good start would be proving that cops aren't above the law," wrote Matthew Hunziker. But it was B-list celebrity Steve Helling, of Nancy Grace fame, who dropped the mic:
— Steve Helling (@stevehelling) December 3, 2014
December 3 and 4: When cops online complained that their boss was having too much oral sex with the mayor
OK, so this one wasn't an unfortunate bit of damage control by the NYPD, but surely the police brass would rather not learn of cops suggesting that their commissioner is prone to giving blowjobs to the mayor. But that's just what happened in the aftermath of the Garner decision. Just hours before the announcement, as police were gearing up for another wave of protests, Bratton was briefly taken to the hospital for dehydration.
Some officers were not happy, and they took to the internet to complain that the commissioner had left them high and dry.
Thee Rant -- a message board billed as a haven for cops to speak their minds -- promptly blew up with comments like: "[D]ehydration, thats [sic] what happens when you wet yourself, each time the phone rings and told its [sic] the mayor."
Another read: "With all the penis he's been sucking, you wouldn't think dehydration is an issue." And yet another, keeping with the commissioner-on-mayor oral-sex theme: "His daily allotment of man sauce from DeBlasio must have been short."
The Voice grabbed screenshots of the comments and asked the NYPD and Commissioner Bratton for their thoughts, but did not receive any comment.
December 12: When the police union told the mayor to stay away from the funerals of fallen officers
While the city raged following the Garner decision, de Blasio extended an olive branch, intimating that he sometimes worried about how his 17-year-old son, Dante -- who is biracial -- would be treated by police. "I couldn't help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante," he said.
"We've had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him," he added. "I've had to worry over the years...There are so many families in this city who feel that each and every night. Is my child safe?...Are they safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors?"
De Blasio's comments were not taken well by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. Instead, the union sent out a flyer that said, "Don't let them insult your sacrifice!"
The union released a form that police officers can download, print out, and mail to de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. The form says:
I, _____, as a New York City police officer, request that Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito refrain from attending my funeral services in the event that I am killed in the line of duty. Due to Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito's consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve, I believe that their attendance at the funeral of a fallen New York City police officer is an insult to that officer's memory and sacrifice.
Usually, the mayor attends funerals for officers killed in the line of duty as a matter of protocol.
The tactic didn't play out quite as expected, though. Instead, even City Councilmember David Greenfield -- known for opposing restrictions on cops in the past -- called it a cheap shot.
— David G. Greenfield (@NYCGreenfield) December 15, 2014
Meanwhile, rather than playing up the union's complaint, both the Daily News and Staten Island Advance wrote editorials telling Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch to cool it with his crew's inflammatory rhetoric. December 15: When an NYPD precinct tweeted Jack Nicholson's speech from A Few Good Men even though his character was actually being terrible
It was "Motivational Monday" at the NYPD Midtown South precinct, so Inspector Edward J. Winski, Commanding Officer, decided to tweet a little speech from the 1992 military courtroom drama A Few Good Men:
A Few Good Men deals, at least in part, with how Nicholson's character, Colonel Nathan Jessup, orders the extrajudicial killing of an incompetent Marine.
In other words, not only is Nicholson the villain in that movie, but the speech that Inspector Winski posted is actually defending the murderers.
The tweet was quietly taken down not long after the backlash began.
December 16: When Police Commissioner Bill Bratton couldn't wrap his head around what "Observer" means
After a small group of protesters was filmed in a tussle with two officers on the walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge, police put out a call for witnesses to the event to come forward, including a man in a green hat who looked like a legal observer:
If you know any of these witnesses please call 1-800-577-TIPS. All calls will remain anonymous. pic.twitter.com/wLmZOWSUey
— Chief Robert Boyce (@NYPDDetectives) December 16, 2014
According to Gothamist, Bratton quickly took the time at a press conference to complain that he was "very disappointed" that the legal observer did "not take any action whatsoever to assist the police officers, to try to mitigate the assault on our police officers."
In short, the commissioner was upset that a legal scholar who was in attendance to observe did not jump in to the fracas with fists flying.
"Police certainly know legal observers don't intervene," says Gideon Orion Oliver, a defense lawyer. Rather, observers' role is to make sure that if protesters get arrested, they have access to professional, objective notes from an outside party so their lawyers can evaluate what happened.
Oliver has been observing protests for about 10 years and says he's never heard a complaint from police like this before. "If legal observers intervened every time they saw police using excessive force at a demonstration, they wouldn't be able to do their jobs. It was surprising, actually. Why single out legal observers, who were there to do a certain function?"
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