This article was originally published in The Globalist.
In recent weeks, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has seen hundreds of police officers turn their backs on him at two funerals for two fallen comrades.
The city’s police force – which is the nation’s largest by a factor of three and is typically known by the shorthand “NYPD” – has also dramatically scaled back their arrest rate and policing activities on the instructions of their union. They have even demanded his resignation.
Even before tensions reached a fever pitch with the deaths of the officers and the recent protests over police brutality and racism, relations had been strained between the NYPD and the mayor.
In November 2013, de Blasio, who is white himself but has two biracial children, was elected mayor on a platform to end the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing tactic that has disproportionately targeted racial minorities in the city.
The policy has also been deemed an unconstitutional search-and-seizure by a federal judge. De Blasio’s opposition to the policy vaulted him first to the Democratic Party nomination in a big field, and then to a landslide 72% victory in the general election.
In most major democratically governed cities (or countries) around the world, that would be a clear mandate for implementing reforms to the police. Confoundingly, that is not so in a U.S. city – and certainly not in New York City.
There, instead, the police form an intractable deep state that vigorously resists and publicly denounces any effort by its elected superiors to assert democratic control.
In November 2011, while still mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg delivered the now-notorious line: “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.”
This speech occurred shortly after the NYPD’s heavy-handed breakup of the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, and it struck a nerve for many Americans concerned with the militarization of U.S. law enforcement.
Indeed, the most alarming part was not so much Bloomberg’s braggadocio and arrogance, but rather that the comparison seemed more accurate than he himself likely intended. His other remarks made clear he fancied himself chief of a sovereign state-within-a-state – New York City within the United States.
The real state-within-a-state
The recent “mutiny” by the NYPD against Mayor de Blasio – from public displays of disrespect to unilateral work slowdowns – has underscored, however, that the real state-within-a-state is New York City’s police force itself.
Under Bloomberg and his very pro-cop predecessor Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD served administrations that did not challenge its authority or refuse requests to extend its authority and mandate. Thus, the elected leadership never faced opposition from that “seventh biggest army.”
Bill de Blasio, on the other hand, is finding that – like the security forces of a third-world country – one dares not cross the Big Apple’s big army. In that respect, he is learning a lesson the city’s first African-American Mayor, David Dinkins, learned the hard way in September 1992.
Back then, 4,000 off-duty officers stormed barricades around City Hall, while their uniformed comrades watched gleefully, during a police riot against Mayor Dinkins’ proposal for an “independent civilian agency” to monitor police misconduct.
Ironically, Dinkins had actually dramatically expanded the city’s police force.
Unable to control its security services
As with many a state-within-a-state before now, New York City is now finding itself unable to control its security services, when they oppose reform. The NYPD has long been able to sway lawmakers to shape the laws around their demands, yet they have never remained satisfied, always trying to exceed and expand their mandate.
When a landslide majority of the city elects an executive to rein in the police, people should reasonably be able to expect that the police whose salaries they pay will not openly mutiny against that agenda.
The police turning their backs on their elected commander-in-chief and refusing orders to do their duty to the citizens who elected him is not only highly unprofessional, but also a disturbing development unheard of in peer nations.
De Blasio’s future legacy
There has been much discussion in U.S. media about whether Mayor de Blasio (along with Senator Elizabeth Warren and like-minded others) might re-shape American politics on the issue of economic fairness. Increasing taxes on the wealthy was also big plank in his mayoral election campaign in 2013, and he may well have a future in national politics.
In the end, however, Bill de Blasio’s real legacy in re-shaping the United States is perhaps more likely to hinge on his ability to carry through his other major campaign promise: reining in and reforming the police.
If he succeeds in that effort, it is likely to serve as a model to the rest of the nation. If he fails, it is likely to embolden other reactionaries to resist their elected leaders.
The rest of the world, raised with the expectation of a democratic America, waits with bated breath how this battle will turn out.