Dec 22 7:00 PM

No love lost between police unions, mayors

Patrick Lynch, head of New York City's rank-and-file police union, gives a statement on the murder of two officers. (Paul Martinka / Polaris)

On Saturday, a man killed two police officers, then himself, in Brooklyn, New York, after shooting his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore. Against a background of protests focused on the use of lethal force by police, the NYPD deaths became national news with the discovery of earlier boasts from the murderer: "I'm Putting Wings on Pigs Today. They Take 1 Of Ours...... Let's Take 2 of Theirs. #ShootThePolice #RIPErivGardner [sic] #RIPMikeBrown."

At a press conference Monday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police chief, Bill Bratton, did nothing to refute the killer's framing of events: that he had shot officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos to avenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. De Blasio asked the public to stop demonstrating, at least temporarily, and to focus instead on mourning.

It was a conciliatory gesture in a moment of extreme tension between city hall and the local police union. On Saturday, at the hospital where Liu and Ramos were pronounced dead, a hallway full of officers turned their backs on the mayor — as did Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents rank-and-file cops, and Ed Mullins, president of the sergeants' union. The mayor has "the blood of these two officers [on his] hands," Mullins said. This blood, Lynch echoed, "starts on the steps of City Hall."

Law enforcement is defined by hierarchy and adherence to the chain of command, but municipal officers' unions have often defied their commanders in chief — police commissioners and mayors — and not only during contract negotiations. “Officers as officers have a chain of command and report to their superiors, but the union is quite outside of that,” said Paul Lewis, a political science professor at Arizona State University.

New York’s PBA has spared no criticism of de Blasio since Dec. 3, when a grand jury failed to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of African-American Eric Garner — about a week after a similar non-indictment in Ferguson, Mo., and despite calls by the nation’s largest union confederation, the AFL-CIO, for police accountability. On Dec. 4, Lynch said his union had been "thrown under the bus" by the mayor, who mentioned in a speech that he’d spoken with his mixed-race son about encounters with police following Garner's death. Lynch, a tough-talking, longtime advocate for the blue line, called Garner's death tragic, but added, "It's also a tragedy for this police officer who has to live with that death." 

The union boss has since accused de Blasio of "running a fucking revolution" and encouraged PBA members to sign "Don't Insult My Sacrifice" pledges that tell the mayor and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has championed police reform, to "refrain from attending my funeral in the event that I am killed in the line of duty." [PDF] (A similar pledge in 1997 was not endorsed by the PBA.) Lynch has also demanded that every public commemoration of Garner pay equal homage to fallen police officers and accused city leadership of privileging the rights of protesters while "scapegoat[ing cops] for centuries of racial issues." (A PBA spokesperson declined to offer comment until after the funerals of Liu and Ramos.)

New York's police union has encouraged members to sign 'Don't Insult My Sacrifice' pledges that tell the mayor to 'refrain from attending my funeral in the event that I am killed in the line of duty.'

"What's happening to de Blasio is exactly what happened to the mayor of Detroit in 1967. ... This has happened to many big-city mayors at times of intense racial unrest and especially when the issue at hand is police brutality," said Heather Thompson, a historian at Temple University.

Several months ago, the chief in New Orleans, newly appointed by the mayor and long at odds with rank-and-file officers over changes mandated by a federal investigation into department misconduct, was forced to resign. In August, the chief of a small Maryland county condemned the local police union for donating about $1,000 to the legal defense fund of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson policeman who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. 

Historically, New York's PBA has been particularly outspoken against the policies of Democrats in city hall. In the early 1990s, officers took to the streets to decry then mayor David Dinkins' comments about police misconduct and his establishment of a civilian complaint board. And tensions ran high between the New York Police Department and city government in the 1970s, a period marked by high crime rates, widespread protest and the murder of officers — a time not unlike today, current police commissioner Bill Bratton told NBC News. (It's worth noting that another, powerful New York law-enforcement union, the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, appears to be the primary "roadblock" in mayoral efforts to restructure Rikers Island, a jail plagued by corruption and inmate deaths.)

Bratton, appointed by de Blasio to his second tour as NYPD commissioner, has tread carefully in his response to the deaths of Liu, Ramos and Garner, as he has in public remarks about police accountability. The chief has acknowledged the grievances of the rank-and-file cops and worked to apprehend several activists who allegedly assaulted policemen at a protest last week. But Bratton has also backed the mayor and his reform agenda, which includes equipping officers with body cameras.

At Monday's press conference, Bratton dismissed the conflict between his boss and the PBA: “Can one of you mention a mayor in the last 50 years who has not been battling the police union?”


Additional reporting by Gregg Levine and Ned Resnikoff.

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