(Photo: Erin O’Brien)

Since protests of police brutality and racial injustice broke out across the city in recent weeks, public calls to drastically reform and even defund the NYPD have resurfaced and intensified as police beat and tear-gassed protesters. Meanwhile, police unions have gone on the offensive, conceding almost no culpability for the escalation of tensions. Earlier this week, MTA Police Benevolent Association president Mike O’Meara angrily complained that police officers have been “left out of the conversation” about defunding.  But so far, they haven’t appeared willing to participate.

The NYPD and its unions have publicly called the murder of George Floyd a heinous display of policing, distancing themselves from what happened thousands of miles away in Minneapolis. While the Minneapolis City Council moves to dismantle its police department, the NYPD believes reforms are the answer to fixing policing in New York City– not an outright reimagining of the system. 

On Friday, June 12, Governor Cuomo officially signed into law a package of several reforms, including the repeal of a statute known as Section 50-a, which kept officer disciplinary records secret. Other bills in the package included banning chokeholds by NYPD officers, prohibiting Amy Cooper- style racist 911 calls and an executive order requiring local governments to develop reform plans, or else lose state funding. Monday, the NYPD announced it would reassign about 600 officers from a plainclothes unit that has been involved in a number of high-profile police shootings.  “This was a long time coming,” Cuomo said of the executive order. “We’re not going to fund police agencies in this state that do not look at what has been happening, come to terms with it, and reform themselves.”

Calls to reform the NYPD aren’t new. But has the NYPD shown that it is actually capable of meaningful, impactful reform? Consider the history. Two weeks after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, a white off-duty police officer in Harlem shot and killed a 15-year-old black student, James Powell. Riots erupted in Harlem and Bed-Stuy after the NYPD began beating down peaceful protesters and black citizens fought back. In the wake of the riots, Mayor John Lindsay pushed to reform the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board by adding actual civilians to the governing board. But the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) fiercely opposed the move, its president saying, “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” The PBA created a referendum to combat Lindsay’s proposal and eventually won out, organizing against oversight. 

When Bill de Blasio ran his longshot campaign for mayor in 2013, he promised reforms to the NYPD, and stood in stark contrast to the aggressive policing policies under Mike Bloomberg. He was true to his word early on; in the wake of a federal judge declaring Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk strategy to be unconstitutional, de Blasio settled the pending cases and agreed to implement the judge’s recommendations, including the appointment of an independent monitor to help develop NYPD reforms. Later on, de Blasio’s administration also decriminalized marijuana possession and helped expand police body camera use, and the City Council passed Local Law 70, which authorized the Department of Investigation to monitor the NYPD through a new Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD. 

But the promise of de Blasio supporting a truly progressive policing reform agenda quickly unraveled. In July 2014, Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD officer in Staten Island. When a grand jury declined to indict the officer in December, protests erupted, with demonstrators chanting Garner’s infamous last words, “I can’t breathe.” 

Police at an Eric Garner protest, 2014. (Photo: The All-Nite Images via WikiCommons)

In response to demands for reform, then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton was defensive, and in an interview with NPR, refused to change the policing policies that led to Garner’s murder. “I can assure you that quality-of-life policing will continue, and continue very assertively in this city.” He insisted “it’s what made this city safe in the first place.”

Shortly after the Garner decision was announced, two NYPD officers were murdered in the winter of 2014 by a man who was explicitly seeking revenge for Garner. The NYC Police Benevolent Association blamed the killings on de Blasio, and his reform agenda and anti-policing rhetoric. “There’s blood on many hands tonight,” said PBA President Patrick Lynch on the night of the attack. “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” 

From then on, meaningful NYPD reform was never going to happen under Mayor de Blasio. 

In Fight The Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York, CUNY Professor Emeritus Clarence Taylor details the failures of the NYPD reforms under Bratton and de Blasio. For instance, the NYPD committed to re-training over 20,000 officers in de-escalation techniques, like “assuming a non-judgmental posture,” but Bratton admitted these procedures were already taught at the police academy. A New York Post article in February 2015 revealed that 80 percent of the officers who went through the three-day retraining thought it was “a waste of time.” 

As de Blasio got closer to his reelection campaign, his reputation with police and white voters was still damaged from his reform campaigning and the fallout from Eric Garner. In Fight The Power, Taylor explains, “The mayor’s negative ratings were highest in a March 2016 survey conducted by the PBA: 87 percent of police officers polled felt that under de Blasio the city was less safe, and 96 percent felt that the police relationship with the public had gotten worse.” De Blasio and his advisors concluded that “if he wanted a second term, he needed to be seen as a crime fighter,” Taylor writes.

In April 2014, de Blasio stated that the NYPD didn’t need to hire more officers, but in June 2015, after Garner, he announced a plan for hiring an additional 1,300. He defended broken windows policing in 2015, telling a radio program that he considered it “successful policing.” In 2017, when the Manhattan DA announced that his office would no longer prosecute turnstile jumpers, de Blasio objected, complaining: “There is no way in hell anyone should be evading the fare.” 

That year, De Blasio also joined the PBA and Bratton in opposing widely supported “Right to Know” legislation, which would require officers to receive consent before conducting a random stop and search, give their name and rank to the individual being searched, and inform them that they had a right to refuse the search. Instead, de Blasio, “the [city council] speaker, and leaders of the NYPD struck a verbal deal” that these reforms would be enacted internally, without the need of legislation. “The NYPD would monitor their own behavior,” Taylor writes. 

The NYPD continues to strongly oppose monitoring or changing its own behavior. “I think that there are real limitations to what [internal oversight] can do,” says Ashok Chandran, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. As part of the stop-and-frisk settlements, the NAACP works with the NYPD and the court-appointed independent monitor to develop potential reforms for the NYPD. But according to Chandran, that process has been difficult. “They want to keep the scope of their reforms extremely narrow,” he says. “And that forces us to go to court again and again.” 

The NYPD has a three-pronged internal monitoring system that was recently revised. But according to Chandran, among those internal oversight bodies, “there’s more of an impulse to justify what the NYPD has done, rather than take a more objective look at the propriety of what it’s done.” NYPD auditors “will come up with convoluted counterfactuals to explain why the officer could have possibly been justified to do what they did.”

Last week, as elected officials voiced support for defunding the NYPD and decried their treatment of protesters, the Sergeants Benevolent Association took out a full page ad in the New York Post, aimed at elected officials and the public, titled “Do You Have Our Backs?” In the ad, SBA President Ed Mullins asks, “Will you support police officers and due process of law, or will you allow a few leftist politicians to vilify us and ignore the public’s safety just to placate a tiny rabble bent on violence and theft?” At the press conference on Randall’s Island on Tuesday, NYC PBA President Patrick Lynch said, “For our legislators, and I emphasize our legislators, to then demonize police officers as if we’re the problem, as if we broke the window, as if we caused violence. That is absolutely outrageous.”

The police unions opposed even the miniscule reform steps Cuomo signed into law last week, with Patrick Lynch responding, “We will be permanently frozen, stripped of all resources and unable to do the job. We don’t want to see our communities suffer, but this is what Governor Cuomo and our elected leaders have chosen.” 

The NYPD has also made their displeasure with impending changes known with less overt responses. In an internal memo dated June 8, the NYPD directed its officers to stop appearing for previously scheduled court hearings in all boroughs, due to extra “staff details” surrounding the city’s protests. Surprisingly, courts have so far allowed this to take place. This move not only slows down the judicial process, it means many defendants cannot be released from jail as they normally would have. On Twitter, public defenders called out this response from the NYPD. “This is bullshit,” wrote @artemis_nieves. “Cops are throwing a tantrum and the courts are tolerating it. Our clients have due process rights. The courts are permitting their indefinite pretrial detention, with no meaningful process occurring, b/c the NYPD’s feelz are hurt.”

The racially discriminatory policing that brought us here in the first place has continued, despite enormous protests. Ashok Chandran says that recently, “we’re seeing a lot of the same patterns of racially discriminatory law enforcement, in terms of social distancing enforcement and protest response.” It doesn’t appear like that will change anytime soon. “The NYPD is not seriously committed to reforming.”

The NYPD’s firm stance on the issue of reform is telling. In an online address on Thursday, June 11,  NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea defended his officers and department. “You turn on the TV this morning and you‘ll hear about ‘reform, reform, reform.’ Nobody’s mentioning that we’ve been reforming for six years.”