NYC's Mayor Bill de Blasio weathers blowback on police reform after cop slayings

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter

In the wake of two cop slayings in Brooklyn this weekend, police unions and their allies are blaming recent calls to bring more accountability to America’s police forces from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Obama administration.

Rafael Ramos, 40, and Wenjian Liu, 32, were shot dead while sitting in their patrol car Saturday afternoon by a man who officials say was out for revenge for the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The men’s deaths at the hands of police have caused nationwide protests against police brutality and sparked calls for reform from de Blasio and the Obama administration. These protests intensified after two separate grand juries cleared the policemen of charges of wrongdoing in both cases.

New York City and national police unions quickly blamed the push for reform — and certain politicians’ rhetoric — for inflaming tensions toward police. De Blasio said after the Staten Island grand jury declined to bring charges against the police officer in the Garner case earlier this month that it was a “painful day” for many New Yorkers, leaving some police officers feeling thrown under the bus.

The mayor strongly condemned the police slayings at a press conference Saturday night. As he walked into Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, dozens of NYPD police at the event were captured on video silently turning their backs to him in protest.

“When a police officer is murdered, it tears at the foundation of our society,” a somber-looking de Blasio said. “It is an attack on all of us. It’s an attack on everything we hold dear. We depend on our police to protect us against forces of criminality and evil. They are a foundation of our society, and when they are attacked, it is an attack on the very concept of decency.”

Later, de Blasio urged New Yorkers to call 911 if they hear someone threatening to kill cops, in order to “protect our entire civilization.”

But police unions were still angry at de Blasio after his speech. They’ve criticized him for meeting with protest leaders in recent days. They also circulated a petition for police officers to sign if they do not want the mayor to attend their funeral should they die in the line of duty. (It’s unclear if either of the slain officers had signed it.)

“There is blood on many hands, from those that incited violence under the guise of protest to try to tear down what police officers do every day,” Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association union, told reporters after de Blasio spoke Saturday night. “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.”

Lynch said that after the funerals of the two slain officers, “those who allowed this to happen will be held accountable.” Another union, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, echoed Lynch, tweeting that the “blood of 2 executed police officers is on the hands of Mayor de Blasio.”

Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly poured on the criticism on Sunday morning in an interview with ABC News, saying de Blasio ran “an antipolice campaign.” "Quite frankly the mayor ran an antipolice campaign last year when he ran for mayor, so there’s a bit of a residue," he said.

De Blasio was elected to office after campaigning fiercely against the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program, in which tens of thousands of mostly black and Latino men were stopped and searched by police without probable cause.  As a candidate, de Blasio ran an ad saying he worried his own biracial son would be a target of stop and frisk because of his race. De Blasio reined in stop and frisk once elected, but declined to support legislation to completely ban it.

The New York City mayor is just one of many public officials who have pushed for policing reforms after several high-profile shootings sparked national protests and outrage. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama have called for better relationships between police and communities of color in recent weeks, and expressed dismay at the “militarized” response to protests in Ferguson by police last summer.

The Justice Department plans to fund 50,000 body cameras for police as one way to increase accountability and build trust. De Blasio recently outfitted several dozen police officers with the cameras as part of a body camera pilot program.

Politicians are feeling pressure to make changes as thousands of Americans continue to protest what they believe is a culture of excessive force among some police departments — force that is often directed at poor minority men. It’s unclear if these two policemen’s murders will slow the pace of these reforms or affect the ongoing anti-police-brutality protests in many American cities in the coming weeks.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki tweeted that both de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Holder's "rhetoric" on police were to blame for the deaths, linking the mayor to the Obama administration. 

“The poorly thought out and intemperate statements made by public figures in the aftermath of Ferguson could well be a triggering factor in unstable folks feeling that they’re empowered to commit violent acts,” Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told Yahoo News.

At Saturday’s press conference, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton also appeared to implicate the recent police protests in the crime: "Let's face it. There's been, not just in New York, but throughout the country, a very strong, antipolice, anti-criminal-justice system, anti-societal set of initiatives underway,” Bratton said. “One of these unfortunate aspects, sometimes, is that some people get caught up in the directions they should not."

Police leaders say it’s not their job alone to improve community relations.

“I hope people will begin to understand that it’s not just a matter of restoring community faith in police, it’s a matter of restoring police faith in community,” Pasco said, referencing recent calls for police to repair their connections with minority communities. “This is exactly the kind of thing that leads police officers to be defensive and to fear for their lives as they try to go about protecting people in the poorest parts of the country.”