Corey Johnson wants to be New York City’s next mayor. But first the city council speaker had to get right with the times.
On Thursday, as the council passed a slate of long-delayed police reforms, Johnson confronted his own record and accusations of hypocrisy stemming from a 2015 budget vote that grew the New York Police Department by 1,300 officers.
“I want to apologize for that,” Johnson said. “And not make up excuses, and not sit here today and give you a list of reasons why. This moment is a reckoning. It’s a reckoning for America, it’s a reckoning for our city.”
New York is home to the country’s largest police force, with more than 36,000 officers and an annual budget of nearly $6 billion. But earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has come under intense criticism for the department’s heavy-handed response to anti-racist protests across the city, said he would back a cut to its funding. In cities around the country, mayors and top elected city officials are entering a new period of increasingly fraught relations with their police departments, the unions that represent the rank-and-file, and angry constituents crying out for change. The movement against police brutality and racism wants to slash spending on law enforcement, increase public transparency and apply stricter standards of behavior for officers – all demands that have either been largely resisted or dismissed for years.
The pushback from some rank-and-file police and many of their union leaders has been fierce. In Atlanta, a slowdown followed the filing of charges against the officers involved in the killing of Rayshard Brooks. Throngs of officers gathered in defiance outside a union hall in Philadelphia to send off Joseph Bologna Jr., a staff inspector caught on camera attacking a college student, as he left to turn himself in at district headquarters. Los Angeles Police Department officers told CNN morale is at its lowest points in decades, with young officers angry at their superiors’ perceived deference to civilian leadership.
And President Donald Trump, from the White House, is pouring fuel on the fire nearly every day with a barrage of tweets amplifying some of the left’s loudest – but least popular – slogans and demands, like those to “defund the police,” as he tries to cast his rival this fall, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a moderate with a “tough on crime” criminal justice record, as a flame-throwing radical.
Trouble in Atlanta and New York City
A number of police officers in Atlanta this week responded to a prosecutor’s decision to charge former officer Garrett Rolfe with murder and other charges, days after he shot Brooks, by calling in sick, refusing to respond to calls in half of the department’s six zones and, in some cases, only leaving their precincts if another officer requested aid.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a potential Democratic vice presidential pick, has been among the city officials treading the line between a popular push to, at the least, increase police accountability and anger among police officers and their union over the new scrutiny.
In an interview on CNN Wednesday night, Bottoms, whose police chief, Erika Shields, resigned after Brooks’ killing, spoke about plummeting morale within the force and talked up a pay raise officers received from her administration – a “commitment” from the city, she said, that should be reciprocated by the police. But the situation, Bottoms conceded, was without precedent.
“There’s no playbook for what we are dealing with right now, across this country,” the first-term mayor said. “And so, what I do know is that we have a lot of men and women who work for our police department who care about this city, and they work each and every day with integrity, and with honest interactions with our communities. And so those are the people who I expect will show up for work.”
Bottoms, who suggested that resistance within the ranks to weeding out “bad officers” endangered both the police force and the community, is facing a similar challenge to mayors in cities like Buffalo and New York, where elected leaders are being pushed to take clearer positions – and action – in response to episodes of police violence.
In 2013, de Blasio ran on the promise of reforming the police and improving relations with minority communities that had been hurt by Bloomberg era policies like “stop and frisk,” which disproportionately targeted people of color.
After a grand jury decided not to charge an NYPD officer in the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, de Blasio, whose wife is Black, spoke in stark personal terms about discussions he’d had with his son about how to deal with the police.
“We’ve had to literally train him – as families have all over this city for decades – how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him,” de Blasio said, sharing an experience familiar to the parents of Black and Brown children around the country.
Shortly after de Blasio made those public comments, a pair of young police officers were shot and killed by a gunman in an unprovoked attack in Brooklyn, setting off a firestorm of accusations, most notably from the president of the city’s largest police union, who said there was “blood on the hands” of the mayor’s office.
A former de Blasio aide said the incident, which generated national attention when officers turned their backs on the mayor during one of the officers’ funerals, took a toll on de Blasio.
“To have it snap back so quickly from a moment of real emotion about your son and what it’s like to raise an African American kid in this country, to a few weeks later, you’re now blamed for the deaths of two young police officers… that’s (difficult),” the former aide said.
De Blasio’s mixed messages in response to clear video evidence of police brutality during the protests has been the subject of sharp, personal backlash from activists – who have chanted demands for his resignation during protests – and even some former staff, but his position is also emblematic of the challenges facing mayors in smaller and medium-sized cities.
Benjamin Levin, a University of Colorado law professor who studies criminal justice reform and has written about the relationship between police and elected officials, said the situation in New York, for all the unique factors in play, also underscores the deeper, more difficult questions facing mayors in dealing with their own police forces.
“The fact that de Blasio is doing what he’s doing in this political moment, with the pressure that he has from protesters and from the public, and with the fact that he’s not up for reelection, is a sign of how deep the social fixation with policing and with the criminal system is,” Levin said. “Even in a moment where there’s probably relatively little costs for de Blasio, he still does not understand his (role) as really taking on police or taking on the troubling aspects of the system.”
Trump and police unions lash back
The Trump era has further complicated the work of mayors and, in some cases, stoked more combative rhetoric from some police union leaders. In New York, the Sergeants Benevolent Association doxed de Blasio’s daughter, tweeting out personal information from a police report following her arrest at a protest in late May. Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, appeared onstage with Trump at a 2019 rally and in a letter to officers after George Floyd’s killing excoriated local leaders.
The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Trump during his 2016 campaign and its executive director, Jim Pasco, told the Washington Post last year that he estimated 80% of his members backed Trump. The bulk of organized labor is coalescing around Biden in 2020, but police unions are a rare sector that has grown as membership drops across other industries. Their behavior has set off a complicated debate on the left as some activists push the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor organization, to expel their police union, the International Union of Police Associations.
Vince Champion, Southeast Regional Director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, told CNN this week that the union had not taken a part in planning the slowdown in Atlanta. But he accused city leadership of leaving officers without clear guidance amid the upheaval.
“They’re just fed up,” Champion said of the officers. “I mean, their mayor has come out and said everything that they used to do with use of force is not valid, ‘don’t do it.’ So, I don’t know how we defend ourselves when people want to fight us.”
Brian Luciano, the president of the Police Benevolent Association in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said recently that the unions have no intention of backing down, arguing that officers accused of misconduct need robust support at a time when political leaders are being faced with public pressure to more aggressively address it.
“Municipalities don’t always have the officers’ best interest at heart. They will do what’s expedient for them for their political purposes,” Luciano told CNN. “We see our role as protecting the rights of the accused. And in some cases, the accused is the police officer.”
Trump, meanwhile, has continued to embrace and stoke that culture’s most unsavory elements. Amid protests this year, he tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In 2017, he infamously told a law enforcement audience in New York not to “be too nice” when arresting people, suggesting they shouldn’t work too hard to avoid roughing up suspects.
“Then to see police applaud that – no, it does not help the issue that we’re dealing with when it comes to disparities and racial disparities in policing,” said Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat and second vice president of the United States Conference of Mayors. “It’s not surprising, it’s pretty typical of what we’ve had for the last three and a half years in leadership in the federal administration, but it makes it more difficult.”
Trump’s Justice Department has also largely abdicated any proactive oversight of police departments with troubling records. The movement toward consent decrees that grew during the Obama administration came to a halt when the President took office – and, according to Whaley, further complicated the path for mayors seeking meaningful reform.
“Having that kind of tool for mayors to be able to lean on and pull out, allows (mayors) to deal with really long-standing contracts that may have gotten really out of balance, allows them to make changes in recruitment that they can’t get changed even by a vote of the people,” Whaley said. “Those are the kinds of issues that you’re talking about when you’re talking about systemic change. You need that support and that’s just not here right now.”
CNN’s Sonia Moghe, Dianna Gallagher, Pamela Kirkland, Marshall Cohen, Sara Murray, David Shortell, Katelyn Polantz and Mark Morales contributed to this report.