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Rift Between NYC Mayor And Police Could Become Dangerous

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Eric Westervelt sitting in for Scott Simon. In New York City tomorrow, the friends and family of slain police officer Wenjian Liu will gather to pay their respects. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to attend the funeral and so are thousands of police.

Yesterday, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton urged officers not to turn their backs on the mayor as they did at the funeral for Liu's partner last weekend. Tensions between de Blasio and police have spun into a bitter feud, and many officers blame the mayor for what they call anti-police words and policies. We invited New York Times reporter J. David Goodman to explain why the mayor's relationship with police is so fraught, beginning with his mayoral campaign, when de Blasio ran against so-called stop-and-frisk policies.

J. DAVID GOODMAN: He came in on a police reform platform. And that's something that even if some of the police unions didn't support the stop-and-frisk program under his predecessor, they certainly didn't seem to appreciate the platform that Mayor de Blasio ran on.

WESTERVELT: After a grand jury decided not to indict a New York City officer after the death of Eric Garner last month, protests broke out all over the country calling for changes in basic police practices. Mayor de Blasio gave a speech on Staten Island that seems to be one of the biggest tipping points in all this. Remind us what he said and what he didn't say to make things worse.

GOODMAN: Right. So you have all the sort of tension kind of simmering, and then Mayor de Blasio makes a speech that I think for a lot of New Yorkers rang sort of true. You know, what he said was what a lot of at least African American New Yorkers know to be their own experience, that when they're around the police you use a little bit more caution.

You know, he tells his biracial son that he should take extra care around the police. That's the reality we live in in the city. It seemed, at the time, as a statement of empathy with the Garner family, but for the New York City Police Department, what they heard was the mayor telling New Yorkers that he tells his son to be afraid of the police.

WESTERVELT: You report that the mayor had a two-hour meeting with police union officials just before New Year's. Did anything come out of that meeting?

GOODMAN: Not as much as might have been hoped for. The mayor and the police unions really were sort of as far part as two sort of groups of people meeting can be. They came in essentially just to hear each other out, and that's what they did. No results came in the meeting. There was no sort of final resolution.

WESTERVELT: After the murder of the two New York City officers in the patrol car last month, a memo circulated among officers telling them not to make arrests unless, quote, "absolutely necessary." Do we know at all if since then police arrests and citations are down?

GOODMAN: Yeah, I mean, this is an incredibly interesting and disturbing development. So that memo wasn't so much a memo as - it went around on social media, like a bit of text that essentially said not to make arrests, put your own safety first. And it was attributed to the patrolmen's union.

They denied having written it, but it turned out when the official statistics came in at the end of last week across the board in every police precinct you had dramatic declines in arrests, in parking tickets, in criminal summonses. Some places had absolutely no tickets written whatsoever for that week, when, you know, the previous week, they would've had hundreds. And looking at the statistics, even though all five unions deny having orchestrated any kind of slowdown, it's hard to imagine that this wasn't an organized effort, if not formally than informally.

WESTERVELT: That is incredible. This could have practical or potentially dangerous consequences, no?

GOODMAN: No, that's right. You know, I mean, it's interesting to look back on that week and to see, you know, crime did go down that week. There was about a 15 percent decline in crime. Criminologists that we spoke to said one week is not an example but, you know, if that behavior continues and people become accustomed to that, or the people that are criminally minded may not be committing crimes because of police pressure, feel like that pressure is off.

Not to say that they weren't making arrests. They were making the arrests when they have to, what officers will call a must arrest situation. But for the rest of them they weren't. Citywide there was about 66 percent in decline in arrests last week, which is incredibly stark.

WESTERVELT: So given the deep, lingering animosity, what's the way forward in repairing this relationship?

GOODMAN: This is the big challenge for de Blasio entering his second year. And, you know, it's exactly kind of ironic that he came into this year - he had two major challenges. The first challenge was as a, you know, liberal, reform-minded mayor, could he keep crime down in a city that had seen historic lows in crime before his time? And he proved that he could. But his other promise was that he could improve the relationship between police and especially the minority communities in which they're most active.

And at the end of this year, he not only has seemingly not made great progress in that area, but also now he's got to improve his relationship with the police department. It's not the police and the community; it's the police and himself. And so his mission is narrowed to this one very critical step because, you know, he's got three more years as mayor. And you need the police department on your back if you're going to govern a city as large as New York.

WESTERVELT: Reporter J. David Goodman covers police for The New York Times. David, thanks for joining us.

GOODMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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