Steve Osborne makes a compelling case. In an op-ed for the New York Times on Thursday, the former New York City cop explains “Why we’re so mad at de Blasio.” Osborne presents his perspective forcefully, but without the “blood on his hands” impertinence of a certain police union chief. As I read his words, it was difficult to not have a feeling of communion, for his talk of the fears and stresses borne by police officers and their families are similar to those of African American families across the country.
When I was assigned to the Fugitive Division of the New York City Police Department, in the ’90s, I would get out of bed at 3 o’clock each morning, trying not to wake my wife. I would gently kiss her goodbye and leave for work. By 5 a.m. my team and I would be executing the first of several warrants assigned to us for the day. (Mornings are the best time to catch bad guys.) We were arresting the most wanted and dangerous criminals in the city, and the work was, to put it mildly, stressful. By 9 a.m. we would be back in our office processing our arrests, and I would call my wife without fail, in case she had overslept, and to let her know that I was O.K. and still in one piece.
Years later, during a tearful venting, my wife confided that those calls were seldom needed to wake her because she was usually lying in bed, tossing and turning and fearing that she would get another kind of call. She couldn’t rest until she had word that I was off the streets and safe for another day. I accepted the dangers of police work because I loved doing it and understood its value to society, but I sometimes regret having dragged her into the life with me.
How many African Americans can relate to the tossing and turning and fearing they would get a call from law enforcement that their child was dead and killed by a police officer?
Ever since the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., three years ago next month, we’ve all been talking more openly about “the talk” black families of all socio-economic stations have had for decades. The one where black kids, particularly young and teenage boys, are taught for their own safety how to behave in public and are made to understand the extra burden they must bear when interacting with police. The recent spate of shootings and killings of unarmed black men and boys by police has given that conversation new urgency.
During a speech on Staten Island last month after a grand jury opted not to indict the police officer in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio talked about how he and his African American wife have had the same talk with their biracial son.
“Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face – good young man, law abiding young man, never would think to do anything wrong, and yet because of the history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face. We’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him,” he said.
“I’ve had to worry over the years. Chirlane’s had to worry. Is Dante safe each night? There are so many families in this city who feel that each and every night. Is my child safe?…Are they safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors?”
Even though what de Blasio said is a long-established fact of life, police have given de Blasio the blues over it ever since. This part of the argument alone illustrates the gulf in understanding between police and the people they are sworn to protect. But there is reason to hope that it can be bridged. That hope lies with New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.
In an interview on “Meet The Press” last month, Bratton was able to give voice to the anger, fears and frustrations of both sides. When asked by moderator Chuck Todd if he “acknowledge[d] this issue here between police and African Americans?” Bratton didn’t flinch.
Oh, certainly. I interact quite frequently with African Americans from all classes, from the rich to the poor. And there’s not a single one that has not expressed this concern, that their perception is the reality that we have to deal with. And it has to be part of the dialogue. It has to be trying to find that common ground, if you will, so that all parties involved here understand the perceptions of the other parties that shape the realities that we’re trying to deal with.
So, there’s no denying that among the black community there are those concerns. In policing that sometimes it’s difficult to see those.
When Todd asked for reaction to remarks made by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, Bratton, once again, didn’t flinch.
Well, this goes to the idea of seeing people. See us. See the police. See why they have the anxieties and the perceptions they have. They really do feel under attack, rank-and-file officers and much of American police leadership. They feel that they are under attack from the federal government at the highest levels. So, that’s something we need to understand also, this sense of perception that becomes a reality. We have a lot of talking we’re going to have to do here to understand all sides of this issue. This is not a one-sided issue.
Bratton’s insistence that we see each other might sound like cribbed dialogue from “Avatar,” but it also has the benefit of being true and important. “When I say ‘see each other,’ that means to not look past each other, but to really see what is motivating what we’re experiencing,” he explained.
As a New Yorker, my appreciation of the NYPD is solid. The 34,500-member force is not only required to maintain law and order in the Big Apple, but it is also a front-line defense against another terrorist attack on the city and the nation. And the assassination of police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu was a horror that served to remind all, as The Post editorial board put it, that “[p]olice work is difficult, sometimes thankless and often dangerous.”
This is why I had no problem seeing Osborne and his brothers and sisters in blue in his op-ed. But ever since the grand jury decisions in the Garner case and the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo., I have wondered how many police officers see the protesters and see their concerns about certain police tactics as valid.
Bratton is right. This isn’t a “one-sided issue.” But because they have guns and are backed by the power of the state, police have an extra burden in this two-way conversation. Bratton might not agree with that previous sentence, but I know he can see where I am coming from. My hope is that he can get the rank-and-file of the NYPD, those who turned their backs on the mayor and others who did in spirit, to see it, too.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj