Bill De Blasio has a Garner problem

December 10, 2014

New York City activist and WBAI radio co-host Sandy Boyer analyzes the limitations of police reforms being put forward by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

THE LIBERAL mayor of New York City has a serious dilemma.

It's politically impossible for Bill de Blasio to defend the Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict a cop for strangling Eric Garner to death. There's been a tidal wave of indignation and protest throughout the city in the days since that decision, and it's the people who elected de Blasio--African Americans, Latinos, trade unionists and progressive whites--who are out in the streets protesting.

But de Blasio's "broken windows" policing strategy is directly responsible for Eric Garner's death.

Broken windows calls for locking up as many people as possible for minor "quality of life" offenses in the hopes that this will reduce serious crime. It was first developed by de Blasio's chosen police chief William Bratton, back when Bratton was NYPD commissioner under Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo and the other cops who confronted Eric Garner for the "crime" of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street were simply carrying out broken windows policy. When Garner protested being harassed, he was strangled to death.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) talks to Police Commissioner William Bratton
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) talks to Police Commissioner William Bratton

Broken windows is the centerpiece of Bratton's law enforcement policy and an essential part of de Blasio's message to the business community that his administration can be trusted to maintain law and order in the city.

Noting this contradiction, the New York Times described the mayor as "eager to show empathy with protesters dismayed at the unpunished death of a Black man, yet careful to show respect for the New York City police officers who report to him."

DE BLASIO'S solution to his problem has been to announce, with great fanfare, a few cosmetic reforms in the hope that they will satisfy the protesters.

He announced that New York City would begin outfitting cops with body cameras to record future encounters. But every detail of Eric Garner's death was videotaped and that still wasn't enough to produce an indictment. Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, the cop who recently shot and killed Ty Worthington was wearing a body camera. He just never turned it on.

De Blasio has proclaimed that every cop in New York City will soon be retrained. Among other things, they'll be taught to not use foul language with the people they encounter. But no one was swearing at Eric Garner. They just killed him.

The mayor claims that police will be trained "to persuade suspects to comply with arrest without the use of force." The reality in the streets of New York City is very different.

Many people are justifiably resentful and even angry when they're arrested for the petty offenses targeted by the broken windows policy, such as riding a bike on the sidewalk, smoking a joint, or drinking a beer on their stoop. Some express their anger to the police or refuse to immediately comply with their orders--which officers then interpret as a dangerous threat to their authority. Inevitably, some of those confrontations escalate into beatings--or, as with Eric Garner, even into killings.

The widely ballyhooed de Blasio announcements about police are typical of his criminal justice "reforms." They promise a lot and deliver much less.

But one of his proposed reforms is actually different, and it could save some people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse from the brutality of the New York City prison system.

On December 1, de Blasio announced a comprehensive four-year plan to reduce the number of prisoners who have mental health problems, which is now an astonishing 40 percent of the city jail population.

The plan includes tripling the size of pretrial diversion programs and resources to help mentally ill people when they're released from New York City jails. These measures are desperately needed at a time when some of the horrors facing mentally ill inmates have been exposed--including not only regular beatings, but one inmate who "basically baked to death," according to city officials, when his cell overheated to at least 101 degrees.

But the new programs will fall way short of what's needed. Even when fully implemented, they will only serve about 7,500 people a year. That's only a fraction of the mentally ill people that New York incarcerates every year.

The new mental illness programs will cost $130 million over four years, with $40 million coming from assets seized by the office of the Manhattan district attorney. To find the funding necessary to address the needs of the entire prison population suffering from mental illness would probably require raising taxes on the rich.

De Blasio proposed increasing taxes on New Yorkers earning $500,000 to pay for his signature program of universal pre-K education, but he didn't fight hard when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo shot that down. Don't look for him to start now.

THIS IS where de Blasio and the Democratic Party's liberals draw the line. They advocate progressive programs. Sometimes they even fight for them within the strict limits of "practical politics."

But they wouldn't even dream of appealing to the people themselves to resist and fight for more. De Blasio and his fellow liberals will never try to build a movement to put tens and hundreds of thousands of people on the streets.

A movement like that could quickly get out of their control. The people they mobilized might not know when to stop. They might actually want to tax the rich further, raise the minimum wage to $15 or $20 an hour, and challenge the authority of cops to hassle them on the streets. Democratic liberals would much rather make their peace with the right wing than take that chance.

Suppose for a moment that de Blasio was really committed to reining in brutal policing. He could do it easily without spending a dime of city money--by encouraging the neighborhood cop watch groups that videotape the police in action.

In Brooklyn, for example, El Grito de Sunset Park recorded a local cop throwing a pregnant woman to the ground and kneeling on her back as he handcuffed her. There are similar videotapes from many other communities throughout the city.

De Blasio could easily give these cop-watching groups a platform and use their evidence to denounce police brutality whenever and wherever it happens. But that would send a dangerous message to the business interests who really run the city that the mayor was starting to believe his own rhetoric about representing all New Yorkers.

Don't count on that happening anytime soon. De Blasio will continue to try to appease both sides of the debate over police violence. Activists looking for justice for Eric Garner should be clear that the mayor is an opponent to be pressured, not an ally to be trusted.

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