After police turn back on mayor again, where does New York go from here?
Some New York police turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funeral for Officer Wenjian Liu. But to repair the rift and institute positive police reforms, what happens now will matter most.
Two weeks after protesters ignored New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's pleas to postpone their demonstrations for police reform, some New York police ignored the pleas of their commissioner and turned their back on Mayor de Blasio.
In that way, it was a suitable culminating act for a turbulent episode in New York City's history.
Police officers' turned backs at the funerals for slain Officers Rafael Ramos last weekend and Wenjian Liu Sunday suggest they see a mayor and a protest movement out to demonize them. Protesters ongoing demonstrations suggest they see an unbroken blue wall of unaccountability.
But when de Blasio issued his plea to protesters to step back on Dec. 22, he had his eye on this moment.
"It’s time everyone put aside political debates, put aside protests," he said, but added that these were things that "we will talk about in due time."
With Liu's funeral now behind the city, that "due time" would appear to have arrived. Respect for Ramos and Liu demanded postponing politics. The continuing rift between the city's police and its leaders now seems to be demanding its resumption.
The result could be of profound importance for the country.
Even before the deaths of Ramos and Liu, New York was poised to take a deep look at the issues raised by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island. The deaths spoke to concerns, particularly among many African-Americans, that police can act with far too much impunity.
De Blasio had been elected in 2013 on a platform of reining in controversial NYPD practices and had already begun to do so. The Garner decision, in which a local cop was not indicted for killing an unarmed black man with a chokehold, arguably provided him with additional momentum.
But beneath the surface, a police backlash was brewing. New York cops felt de Blasio was turning them into the bad guys, and with the gunning down of Ramos and Liu in broad daylight purely because they were police, that anger burst into the open.
On one hand, the acrimony of the past two weeks has hardened positions for the conversation that lies ahead. On the other, it has laid bare the need for it. Reform was never going to be easy. Now, no one is under any illusions about how hard it will be – or of the need for compassion on both sides.
De Blasio has taken rhetorical steps to reach out to police in recent weeks, praising New York cops at every opportunity. But some say he must go further, admitting that he played a role in creating what many cops say was an anti-police atmosphere before Ramos and Liu were killed.
"Bill de Blasio has to admit he made mistakes, or this does not end anytime soon, even if the funerals end, for now," writes columnist Mike Lupica in The New York Daily News. "The mayor does not do this with extra overtime that starts to look like bribes, or eulogies, or using Bratton for cover, or even a new contract."
Beyond tamping down the raw emotions, the issues are complex, as well.
For example, many police watchdog groups support initiatives to have police wear body cameras so that their actions are recorded. But that wouldn't have made a difference in the Garner incident – it was already recorded on cellphone cameras.
Increasing scrutiny of shootings by police could also could cause friction across local, state, and federal jurisdictions. The attorney general of the state of New York, for one, has already asked Governor Cuomo to give him the authority to oversee all local investigations of police.
But it appears that the pieces are at least in place in New York for an honest attempt at reform.
De Blasio's strength is in the city's black community, which is unlikely to be deterred from its desire for reform. Police Commissioner Bratton is a reformer who has already reshaped the NYPD once, when he was commissioner from 1994-96. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made reform a top priority in his inauguration address on Jan. 1:
The truth is police officers do need more safety and more protection. The truth is law enforcement needs to respect the community as much as the community needs to respect law enforcement. The truth is it's our obligation as leaders to provide the reforms necessary to ensure safety. This is a New York City issue. It is a Buffalo issue. It is a Ferguson issue. It is a Los Angeles issue. But it is also our responsibility to solve it here in the state of New York.