A video of a New York City Police Department van driving into a group of protesters has ignited questions about the NYPD’s response to the demonstrations, and whether the city’s leadership — specifically Mayor Bill de Blasio — has the ability and will to hold the police force accountable.

Protests over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, engulfed New York City for another night on Saturday, and some turned in violent, with reports of both protester and police aggression. But the police response to some of the demonstrations has drawn outrage from activists and elected officials, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

In particular, outrage has centered on a video showing a police van driving into protesters. In the clip, protesters surround an NYPD van and push a barricade up to its bumper, with some protesters flinging objects — what looked like water bottles and traffic cones — at the van. Another police van pulls up and begins to slowly make its way through the crowd, while the other all of a sudden accelerates, sending protesters flying. It is not clear if anyone was injured.

De Blasio, addressing the protests Saturday night, called the scene “a very tense one.”

“And imagine what it would be like, you’re just trying to do your job and then you see hundreds of people converging upon you. I’m not gonna blame officers who are trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation,” de Blasio said Saturday. “The folks who were converging on that police car did the wrong thing to begin with and they created an untenable situation. I wish the officers had found a different approach. But let’s begin at the beginning. The protesters in that video did the wrong thing to surround them, surround that police car, period.”

De Blasio’s initial comments drew criticism, and though he tempered his remarks the next day, he now faces pressure from both police and protesters. The mayor’s response was a reminder of the sometimes tenuous relationship he’s had with both cops and criminal justice advocates throughout his tenure.

De Blasio has softened his stance, but his more moderate tone may have come too late

De Blasio walked back the comments slightly at a Sunday morning press conference, saying he did not “ever want to see that again” and announcing an independent investigation into the incident, to “look at the actions of those officers and see what was done and why it was done and what could be done differently.”

That investigation will be led by the city’s chief lawyer, James Johnson, and the city’s watchdog, Department of Investigations Commissioner Margaret Garnett. The findings are expected in June. (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo later Sunday announced that Attorney General Letitia James would also investigate.)

At Sunday’s press conference, de Blasio defended the police’s handling of the protests this weekend overall. “We saw tremendous restraint overall from the NYPD. There are always going to be some incidents we don’t like,” he said.

“I saw a lot of restraint under very, very difficult circumstances. I am going to keep saying, to anyone who is protesting for change, do not take your anger out on the individual officer in front of you.”

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, who took over as the top cop late last year, also backed up the police, although with far more forceful language. On Sunday morning, he told reporters that peaceful protests had been “hijacked” by a small number of agitators. Shea said he did not like what he saw in the van video, but he added, “I look at it fairly and I urge you to also: There are protests and there are mobs.”

Earlier in the day, Shea posted a lengthy Twitter thread that said what NYPD cops had endured in 2020 was “unprecedented.”

“In no small way, I want you to know that I’m extremely proud of the way you’ve comported yourselves in the face of such persistent danger, disrespect, and denigration,” he wrote. “What we saw in New York City last night and the night before was not about peaceful protest of any kind. It was not about civil disobedience. It was not about demonstrating against police brutality.”

There is no question that some protests escalated into violence and destruction. Banks in downtown Manhattan had their windows smashed, and some businesses were looted. The outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was graffitied. Protesters set cop cars aflame, damaging 47 vehicles, according to police officials. Shea said nearly 350 people had been arrested, and more than 30 officers were injured.

There was no mention, however, of protesters who might have been hurt or injured in some of the chaos of the protests, or of those wounded by officers. De Blasio largely blamed outside agitators for much of the mayhem, calling them “people who came to do violence in a systematic organized fashion. That is a different reality we need to grapple with.” But he did not go into greater detail.

His failure to do so, and to fully acknowledge and condemn what seemed like clear examples of the NYPD’s excessive use of force, led to sharp criticism of the mayor.

“Considering that these protests are linked to policing, and communities who feel like there’s no accountability for misconduct even when documented….these types of broad overarching comments may be the absolute worst that could be made at this time,” Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, tweeted.

Ocasio-Cortez, who represents constituents from the Bronx and Queens, called de Blasio’s comments on Saturday “unacceptable.”

“This moment demands leadership & accountability from each of us. Defending and making excuses for NYPD running SUVs into crowds was wrong,” she tweeted.

Corey Johnson, the New York City Council speaker, called the clip of the van “outrageous.”

“Driving police vehicles into crowds of protestors is not deescalation,” he said. Johnson and other city officials have demanded an independent investigation in the protests, separate from the one the mayor has already promised.

As more protests are underway Sunday, fears persist that the failure to denounce the dangerous acts outright might cause tensions to boil over into violence again. And that possibility — and the police response so far — may be a reckoning for de Blasio, who ran for mayor on a platform of police reform and has had, at times, a strained relationship with the institution, despite his latest defense of the department.

De Blasio ran on police reform, but his relationship with the NYPD is complicated

A “tale of two cities,” was de Blasio’s broad campaign platform when he ran for mayor in 2013. The simple idea was of two New Yorks: one for the privileged, and another for the low-income and minority members of the city. As part of this theme, he embraced a platform of police reform, campaigning against such tactics as “stop and frisk.” In a famous campaign ad, de Blasio’s teenage son Dante, who is biracial, said his dad would end the stop-and-frisk era that “unfairly target[ed] people of color.”

But the reality was a lot more complicated, especially in New York, where mayoralties can rise and fall on how the public perceives public safety. For his first police commissioner, de Blasio hired Bill Bratton, who served as police chief in the 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Many criminal justice reform advocates denounced the pick for Bratton’s association with “broken windows” policing, a theory that cracking down on small crimes prevents larger ones.

One of the first big tests de Blasio faced in his tenure was the death of Eric Garner in July 2014, who died after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, which was captured on video. (His plea, “I can’t breathe,” was the same made by George Floyd in his final moments.) “Like so many New Yorkers I was very troubled by the video,” de Blasio said at the time.

In December 2014, protests broke out in New York after a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved in the incident. (Also around this time, a separate grand jury declined to indict the officer in the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.) De Blasio expressed solidarity with some of the protests. “Black lives matter,” he said at the time. “They said it because it has to be said. It’s a phrase that should never have to be said. It should be self-evident, but our history sadly requires us to say it.”

Later that month, two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed by a gunman while they were sitting in their cop car in Brooklyn. The 28-year-old gunman had explicitly targeted police officers, and in the aftermath, some criticized the protests as fomenting anti-police hatred. New York’s vocal police unions, in particular, blamed de Blasio. (De Blasio later called for a halt in the protests.)

At the funeral for the slain officers, cops turned their back on de Blasio. The reaction by the rank-and-file officers became symbolic of a lingering mistrust between New York’s police and the mayor. That image has been nearly impossible for de Blasio to shake, and one a lot of the police unions have continued to fuel. After a shooting in the Bronx earlier this year that seemed to target police, which de Blasio roundly condemned, one of the unions “declared war.”

And, again, it’s been hard for de Blasio to overcome this sense of antipathy, even if it does not fully reflect the relationship between the NYPD’s top brass and the mayor’s office. Which, in turn, has led to criticism from the left flank, who now see de Blasio as far too deferential to the NYPD and as failing to fully address the real, structural problems he had campaigned on.

New York’s record-low crime rate in the city (though murders did tick up in 2019) has largely continued under de Blasio, though that could be attributed to many factors. And police reform has happened, if imperfectly. The NYPD’s neighborhood policing initiative vastly expanded under de Blasio and then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, which assigns police to specific blocks to strengthen relationships with the community. Shea, the current commissioner, is also a champion of this approach. The new strategy still has its critics, and studies are still being done on its effectiveness, both in improving relationships and in targeting crime.

The NYPD has also tried to put more emphasis on precision policing, which is intended to target repeat or violent offenders rather than blanket approaches like stop-and-frisk. There’s also been expanded rollout of body cameras.

But critics say it isn’t enough. There are questions on whether anti-bias claims against the police are being appropriately investigated. De Blasio has continued to back some “broken windows” policing, and he fought an attempt by the Manhattan district attorney to stop prosecuting those evading public transportation fares.

Of course, there are lots of nuances surrounding de Blasio’s record that both camps critical of him — that he’s anti-police or abandoned needed reforms — miss. But it helps explain why the mayor might face blowback regardless of how he responds to the protests in New York.

The response to the mayor’s comments also shows why police reform is so challenging, even in the nation’s most populous city. Both things can be true: Some protesters became violent, and some cops used inappropriate force and may have provoked protesters. Failing to acknowledge the gray areas of the turmoil in New York deepens the distrust. In the longer term, that makes it harder to work toward or implement reforms. And for now, it may make the protests, sure to continue, even more volatile.

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