De Blasio says policing politics separates him from the pack

Bill de Blasio with a megaphone. (Dan Rosenblum)
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When I asked Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in an interview the week before last to pick one policy area in which he differs from the other Democratic mayoral candidates, he turned first to racial profiling.

"They all oppose the bill," he said, sitting cross-legged at a glass table in a Court Street office, referring to an anti-profiling bill that would effectively increase judicial oversight of the New York Police Department. "I support the bill. I don't know how more different we could be."

De Blasio has been running to the left in this year's crowded Democratic field, but has had a hard time distinguishing himself from the other would-be alternatives to the Bloomberg-friendly establishment candidate, Christine Quinn.

First, it seemed to be comptroller John Liu who de Blasio had a hard time shaking, in part because they had similar strategies. Then de Blasio's candidacy suffered the belated, media-devouring entry into the race of Anthony Weiner. Like de Blasio, Weiner is a white, outer-borough Bloomberg critic whose wife is one of his selling points. Unlike de Blasio, Weiner is a nationally recognizable figure, both because he is an effective showman and because he blew up his career in one of the most memorable (and stupid) scandals in recent memory.

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Couple that with de Blasio's inately cautious style—he is a thoughtful man who neverthless tends to express himself publicly in would-be sound bites, like the calculating Clinton operative he once was—and the result has been ... modest.

Two recent polls showed de Blasio winning 10 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, putting him well behind Quinn, Weiner and former comptroller Bill Thompson. Others out this week showed him near Thompson, but still well behind Weiner and Quinn, with a way to go even to contend for one of the two spots in an almost-certain Democratic runoff. 

It's in this situation, which requires de Blasio to make a name for himself, fast, that de Blasio chooses to take a stand on profiling.

Late last month, after Bloomberg told radio host John Gambling that he thought that the NYPD wasn't stopping black and Latino New Yorkers enough, proportionally, de Blasio was the first to schedule a press conference to argue that his opponents are just like Bloomberg on stop-and-frisk.

The Council's "racial profiling" bill, which de Blasio supports and his major rivals don't, would give outside figures, including state judges, some say in how the next mayor polices New York City.

It broadens the grounds on which New Yorkers can sue the department or individual officers for intentional biased policing so as to include categories like gender identity and housing status. And it allows individuals to sue the city to enjoin policies that have a "disparate impact'' on a community.

The Council has passed the bill, the mayor has promised to veto it, the Council has promised to override his veto, and the mayor has promised to spend a lot of money preventing them from doing so.

In other words, it's controversial.

All that being said, it's not all that clear what the bill's practical impact will be.

If the NYPD is sued on the grounds that its policies create a "disparate impact" on a certain community, the NYPD would have to prove that "the impact is justified by some race-neutral purpose," writes NYU law professor Roderick Hills, in an email.

"The problem with such an affirmative defense is that it invites judges to engage in a fairly mushy policy-based inquiry into the law-enforcement merits of NYPD’s law enforcement policies," he went on. "I can imagine that few judges would take up this invitation and might very well rubber-stamp a lot of policies that have some tenuous relationship to good law enforcement. But maybe not: The consequences of this provision are really unpredictable, depending entirely on how aggressively a judge would enforce it."

De Blasio argues that the bill will give New Yorkers another tool to counteract the sometimes abrasive power of the NYPD. And also, that it carries a lot of symbolic value, sending a message to both rank-and-file cops that racial profiling is definitely not OK, and also to the Justice Department, which has been considering appointing a federal monitor to oversee the force.

"If the city government is getting its own house in order, it is an encouragement to the Justice Department to stand back," said de Blasio.

De Blasio's support for the bill has some symbolism of its own: It's meant to signify that a Mayor de Blasio would alter the NYPD's terms of engagement with the community.

He would, for one, replace police commissioner Ray Kelly with someone who's big into "community policing" of the David Kennedy school of thought.

Kennedy, a John Jay criminologist, created Operation Ceasefire, which one NPR reporter described like this:

Kennedy's homicide-reduction program ... brought gang members into meetings with community members they respected, social services representatives who could help them, and law enforcement officials who told them that they didn't want to make arrests — they wanted the gang members to stay alive, and that they planned to aggressively target people who retaliated. The interventions worked to reduce the homicide rates.

But that's not actually entirely different from what Kelly has done.

Kennedy himself wrote in a recent Daily News op-ed that "though you wouldn’t know it from the narrow, hunkered-down stop-and-frisk debate ... the NYPD has also embraced" an iteration of his approach, via what Kelly calls "Operation Crew Cut."

That's not out of character for Kelly, from a historical perspective.

"Both Kelly and Dinkins are committed to community policing and in increasing minority representation on the force," noted Newsday in October of '92, after then Mayor Dinkins had elevated Kelly from acting to full-fledged police commissioner. "As acting commissioner, Kelly has visited black churches for the five past Sundays in an effort to recruit young men and women, and he said yesterday that he plans to continue the practice."

At a police cadet swearing-in the following month 1992, Kelly attributed the city's falling crime rate to "community policing."

"I think that Ray Kelly under Dinkins and Ray Kelly under Bloomberg are two entirely different people," said de Blasio, who worked in the Dinkins administration. "I think that has to do with all the things that happened in between in Ray Kelly's career. I think it has to do, of course, with 9-11."

"When deep concerns are raised about the negative impacts of stop-and-frisk, this Ray Kelly doubled down," he went on. "I don't think the old Ray Kelly would have. This one did. And he ain't changing."

To encourage the sort of community policing that he thinks Kelly has abandoned, De Blasio would overhaul the department's Operation Impact program, which floods high-crime areas with rookie cops. As former comptroller Bill Thompson has also advocated, he would replace the inexperienced cops, whenever possible, with officers who have more experience working with communities.

"I think you want to really focus on, in the high-crime areas, veteran cops, first of all, who have much more ability to handle the difficulty," said de Blasio. "And second, you want an emphasis on relationship development and consistency in the presence of individual officers and commanders in a neighborhood. Once you have the capacity to gather intelligence—and I don't think there's a huge difference between policing and military endeavors on this front—intelligence gathering is the key to success."

How does any of that differ from what his opponents would do?

"I think under Quinn, policing would look almost exactly the way it does now, because she wants to keep the same police commissioner, who was the architect of the overuse of stop-and-frisk," said de Blasio.

Quinn has in fact said she'd be honored to have Kelly stay on as police commissioner. She has also said that if he were to continue with his current stop-and-frisk practices, she'd fire him.

"That's something she can claim, but it is a quizzical claim," he said, adding, "Why would you want someone that you're already talking about potentially having to fire because you might disagree so profoundly on an issue?"

"On Thompson, I don't think it would be profoundly different from what we've seen," said de Blasio. "He went out of his way to say he opposed the inspector general and the racial profiling bill. Then, I take him at his word he'd have a new police commissioner, but I think Thompson has proven that he's trying to moderate on every front."

He also thinks that, "under Weiner, policing would change very little."

All of the aforementioned de Blasio opponents disputed his characterization.

"As mayor the people who work for you report to you, answer to you, and take their direction from you," said Quinn in a statement. "I have made it abundantly clear what the direction will be under my administration: Stop & Frisk will be reduced dramatically and conducted in a constitutionally sound way."

Thompson campaign spokeswoman Dani Lever had this to say: "Bill de Blasio is wrong again, and he knows it, because nobody has been clearer than Bill Thompson that stop and frisk has been abused by this Administration, targeting blacks and Latinos for no reason other than the color of their skin. In a Thompson Administration, we are not going to choose between protecting the Constitution and protecting our communities; we will protect both."

The spokeswoman for Weiner, who opposes both the inspector general and racial-profiling bills, referred me to an appearance he made at a forum in Canarsie in June.

His comments were scattershot, but the gist was this: like de Blasio and Thompson and Quinn, he would rely less on stop-and-frisk, and he make try to alleviate the animosity between community and police engendered by the heavy use of the tactic.

"There's real tension that's going on now that doesn't serve anybody," he said.