Thousands of police officers turned their backs on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as he spoke Saturday at a funeral for a policeman killed along with his partner in an ambush shooting earlier this month.
The public show of defiance was the latest act in a long-simmering feud between the mayor's office and the police department. For months, police officers have accused the liberal mayor of using anti-police rhetoric, particularly after de Blasio said publicly he had advised his biracial son to be "very careful" in dealing with the police.
Even while campaigning for the election he won last year, de Blasio — who publicly aligned himself with activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and was sometimes critical of stop-and-frisk policing — reportedly took steps to ensure plainclothes officers around him could not eavesdrop on his conversations.
When police officers turned their backs on him Saturday, de Blasio was speaking at the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos, who was gunned down a week earlier along with his partner, Officer Wenjian Liu.
Inside Christ Tabernacle Church in New York’s borough of Queens, however, mourners gave de Blasio polite applause before and after his speech. The mayor said hearts were aching citywide after the shootings.
"All of this city is grieving and grieving for so many reasons," de Blasio said. "But the most personal is that we've lost such a good man, and the family is in such pain."
Sgt. Myron Joseph of the New Rochelle Police Department said he and fellow officers turned their backs spontaneously to "support our brothers in the NYPD." New Rochelle is a town just north of New York City.
Moments after the death of the officers on a street in Brooklyn borough’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area, gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed himself. Police said he was troubled and had shot and wounded an ex-girlfriend in Baltimore earlier that day.
In online posts shortly before the attack, Brinsley referenced the killings of two unarmed black men — Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on New York City’s Staten Island — by white police officers.
Also on Saturday, hundreds of people marched in New York to protest the killing of another unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, who was fatally shot by an NYPD officer on Nov. 20. Some of the marchers reportedly turned their backs toward the police in a visual rebuke of the gesture against de Blasio.
Supporters of the police, meanwhile, converged in downtown Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday. Hundreds of people clad in blue joined that city's so-called Sea of Blue rally, which had the support of a local police union. Cleveland is where a 12-year-old African-American boy named Tamir Rice, who had been carrying a pellet gun, was shot dead by an officer in late November.
Police union officials have said de Blasio contributed to a climate of mistrust toward police amid protests in New York and around the country over the deaths of Brown and Garner. At a hospital just after the shootings of the two officers in Brooklyn, police union President Patrick Lynch and others also turned their backs on the mayor in a sign of disrespect. Lynch blamed de Blasio then for the officers' deaths, and said he had blood on his hands.
Weeks before the shooting, Lynch had suggested that officers sign a petition requesting that the mayor not attend their funerals were they to die in the line of duty.
After the funeral, Lynch and de Blasio exchanged nods as they exited the church. Lynch refused to answer reporters' questions about officers turning their backs.
On Saturday, thousands of mourners gathered around the site of Ramos' funeral. Vice President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also spoke.
Officers watching the service on giant screens outside joined those inside the church in applauding when Biden called the New York City Police Department the finest in the world.
"When an assassin's bullet targeted two officers, it targeted this city and it touched the soul of an entire nation," the vice president said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press