Tensions mount between NYC police and mayor after chokehold death of man in custody

Tom Hays / The Associated Press
August 9, 2014 09:06 PM

FILE- In this July 23, 2014 file photo, a pair of New York City police officers stand at their post as mourners arrive for the funeral service of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Garner died on July 17, 2014, after police officers put him in an illegal choke hold while trying to make an arrest. Some city police officers take exception with the way their mayor is handling the controversy surrounding Garner’s death, believing that Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking sides against them. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Police have become increasingly at odds with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over the appearance he is taking sides against them after the chokehold death of a black suspect last month.

The conflict has prompted the city's top law enforcement official, Police Commissioner William Bratton, to do damage control by calling the mayor "very pro-cop."

What angered many was a recent forum in which the Rev. Al Sharpton, a prominent civil rights activist and one of the biggest critics of the New York Police Department, was seated alongside the mayor, a liberal Democrat, and the police commissioner as he lambasted law enforcement. Sharpton suggested the mayor's mixed-race son would be a "candidate for a chokehold" if he were an ordinary New Yorker. The image was seized on by critics of the de Blasio's administration and plastered on the cover of the New York Post newspaper with the headline "Who's the Boss!"

"It is outrageously insulting to all police officers to say that we go out on our streets to choke all people of colour as Al Sharpton stated while seated at the table right next to our mayor at City Hall," said Patrick Lynch, head of the powerful Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. Another union official, Ed Mullins of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, hinted at a work slowdown at the nation's largest police department.

The rift stems from the arrest of Eric Garner on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island, one of the city's five boroughs. Amateur video appears to show an officer putting the asthmatic, 350-pound (159-kilogram) father of six in a banned chokehold after he refused to be handcuffed. He yells, "I can't breathe!" as several officers take him down.

Garner's death has fueled the biggest crisis yet for de Blasio, who took office this year vowing to achieve two goals that, at times, can be contradictory: He said he would drive down crime and repair strained relations between police and the community.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani even weighed in on the controversy, saying in a radio interview that de Blasio made a "big mistake" during the appearance with Sharpton. "Setting up a press conference like that and putting a police commissioner in that situation. That's extremely damaging to the police commissioner, to keep up the morale of the police," Giuliani said.

In recent days, emails have circulated among police officers showing a mock identification card with a picture of Sharpton and the title "Police Commissioner." The activist has shot back by claiming he has the ear of federal officials who have the authority to bring civil rights charges in Garner's death.

"It is time to have a mature conversation about policing rather than immature name calling and childish attempts to scapegoat," Sharpton said in a statement.

Bratton responded to the uproar by giving a series of interviews Friday defending his department's record on race and de Blasio's attitude toward the department.

"We are not a racist organization," Bratton told The Associated Press. "And I will challenge anybody despite their perceptions of police on that issue. This is a department that goes where the problems are — whether it's crime or disorder."

De Blasio, he added, "is very pro-cop. ... This is not an anti-police mayor."

A city medical examiner found that the 43-year-old Garner was killed by neck compression from the chokehold along with "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." Asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors.

The finding increased the likelihood that the case will be presented to a grand jury to determine whether any of the arresting officers will face criminal charges.

Along with rank-and-file discord, Garner's death has forced Bratton to defend his devotion to the policing tactic called broken windows — the idea that going after smaller crimes such as selling loose cigarettes or public drinking helps stop greater ones such as assault and murder. Some lawmakers and experts say the decades-old theory no longer applies to a city with far less crime, unnecessarily puts nonviolent people at risk and fuels tensions in the city's minority communities.

"Serious crime has decreased dramatically in New York City in the two decades that broken windows policing has been in force, yet the causal connection between that drop and huge numbers of arrests for minor transgressions is unproven to this day," Steve Zeidman, a law professor at City University of New York, wrote in a recent op-ed piece.

Bratton has insisted that the NYPD will stick with the tactic. He also has defended the powwow with Sharpton.

"Whether you like Al Sharpton or not, he clearly is a spokesperson, particularly for African-Americans, and that is reality," Bratton said in the AP interview.


Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire and Jake Pearson contributed to this report.

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