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A brief history of public spats between mayors and police

New York City's Bill de Blasio isn't the first big-city mayor to feud publicly with his police force

The killings of two police officers in Brooklyn, New York, have turned the simmering tensions between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York Police Department into a full-blown public feud. Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at New York's Hunter College, says mayor-police feuds are not uncommon in the U.S., particularly during times of heightened racial tensions. "The desire of mayors to change the relationship between police and civilians often is a consequence of racialized disputes themselves," he said. Following are some of the more notable clashes between big-city mayors and their police departments, going back to the 1970s.

Coleman A. Young, Detroit

Coleman Young is shown in front of the Spirit of Detroit on June 26, 1987, when he was mayor of Detroit.
The Detroit News / File / AP

Coleman A. Young ran his 1973 mayoral campaign vowing to reform the Detroit Police Department, which he once described as a racist "foreign army of occupation." At the time, Detroit's population was slightly less than 50 percent black, but the police force was disproportionately white, writes historian Dennis Deslippe, an associate professor of American Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. 

Once elected, Young introduced community policing to Detroit and dismantled a controversial, all-out push to stop street crime, in which squads of plainclothes policemen were dispatched "roaming the streets in unmarked cars and armed with every variety of heavy-duty handgun," according to a 1973 UPI report.  In less than three years, the program led to the killings of 22 black residents at the hands of white officers, the New York Times noted in its obituary for Young, who died in 1997.

Young also implemented affirmative action for the police, requiring the police department to promote black and white officers in equal numbers. Members of the police union challenged Young's new policy in federal court, but in 1975, Judge Ralph Freeman ordered modification of the traditional "last hired, first fired" seniority principle to protect newly hired minority officers. Following the decision, a "police riot" ensued, Deslippe wrote, but Ron Sexton, head of the police officers' union, dismissed the violence as a "small skirmish."

The policy stood, and Young succeeded in his quest to transform Detroit's police force, according to the historian Wilbur C. Rich in his book "Coleman Young and Detroit Politics: From Social Activist to Power Broker." The proportion of blacks among city police officers increased from 18 percent in 1973 to 30 percent in 1983.

Tom Bradley, Los Angeles

Former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley speaks Saturday, April 17, 1993 in a televised address following the Rodney King verdicts.
Akili-Casundria Ramsess / AP

Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles from 1973 to 1993, was the first and, so far, the only African American elected to lead the sprawling metropolis. In his final year in office, riots paralyzed the city after the acquittal by a predominantly white jury of four white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers who were caught on videotape beating 26-year-old Rodney King, a black male, during a traffic stop on March 3, 1991Time magazine called the riots, which left 53 people dead and caused $1 billion in damage, the "worst single episode of urban unrest in American history."

Bradley blasted the verdict, saying, “The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.” His stance strained relations between the mayor’s office and the LAPD, causing a rift that took years to mend. “The police unions were very tough on us,” Richard Riordan, who succeeded Bradley, told the Wall Street Journal. “You had to learn to both stand up to the police unions—and make friends with them. It was the only way to move forward.”

Michael P. McGinn, Seattle

Former Seattle Mayor Michael P. McGinn pauses during a news conference concerning a police shooting, Feb. 16, 2011.
The Seattle Times, Ken Lambert / AP

Michael P. McGinn, a former Sierra Club activist and lawyer who was mayor of Seattle from 2010 to 2013, ran on a social justice platform that included significant police reforms, prompting a war of words with the city’s police union.

A Seattle police officer involved in the August 2010 shooting of John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, resigned in early 2011. A few days later, during his State of the City address, McGinn said that there was "no place" for police officers in Seattle who did not share his administration’s commitment to racial justice. The president of Seattle’s police union, Rich O'Neill, lashed out, telling told a local radio station, "It's scary that the mayor is trying to influence how officers perceive things."

When McGinn declared February 27 to be "John T. Williams Day," O’Neill denounced the mayor again. "The anti-police 'feeding frenzy' is the current climate, and it is 'hungry' for the next high-profile incident that can be skewed to portray your actions in a negative light," O'Neill told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Abraham Beame, New York City

The cover of the infamous “Welcome to Fear City” brochures printed by New York City's police unions.
Council for Public Safety

Perhaps no big-city mayor has faced the kind of revolt that confronted New York City’s Abraham Beame, who took office in 1974 and inherited a $1.5 billion budget deficit. His drastic budget cuts, which included layoffs in the police and fire departments, inspired one of the most notorious campaigns ever mounted by organized labor, writes Miriam Greenberg, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in "Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World."

To sway public opinion against the layoffs, a group of 24 police and fire unions calling themselves the Council for Public Safety printed 1 million pamphlets entitled “Welcome to Fear City.” With a skull on the cover, the leaflets greeted tourists with a “survival guide” cautioning them to stay in their hotels at night and avoid public transportation.

Along with the pamphlets, police unions organized demonstrations and blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, according to Andrew T. Darien in his book "Becoming New York's Finest: Race, Gender, and the Integration of the NYPD." Under union orders, officers rampaged through black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, blowing whistles and banging trashcan lids, Darien wrote, and thousands of off-duty cops roamed the streets for several nights, some displaying their guns.

Beame successfully obtained a restraining to prevent the officers from distributing the leaflets, but the Committee for Public Safety later printed new ones titled, "If You Haven't Been Mugged Yet..." New York would take years to recover from a campaign that, Greenberg wrote, "wreaked havoc” on the city's image. 

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