This moment may well be the low point of Bill de Blasio's brief time so far as mayor of New York City. As he approaches the end of his first year in office, members of the city's police force are publicly revolting against him, one of his predecessors — Rudy Giuliani — is denouncing him on TV, even the protesters who form his political base are now miffed that the mayor has asked them to temporarily stand down. The common refrain: de Blasio's progressivism and activist past put him fundamentally at odds with police.
This moment is not, however, the low point of strained relations between the largest municipal police force in the country and the mayor of New York. Giuliani himself sparred with the police, so did Michael Bloomberg, with name-calling and protests and dissension. Tension between de Blasio and the police is bad — but it's not quite accurate or fair to suggest that the progressive mayor is uniquely incapable of securing their trust, or that the NYPD and City Hall embraced each other before his election.
The New York Observer has a good history this week of conflict between the city's mayors police unions going back a generation:
“This is a recurring theme,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a longtime professor of political science at Hunter College. “Police respond with anger when mayors try to exercise authority over how they relate to the civilian population.”
Former Mayors David Dinkins, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg all endured that animus, despite their wildly divergent ideologies and approach to governing. Just about any time a mayor tried to pay police less than they thought they deserved or impose a new form of oversight or accountability, the vitriol flew–and no clash between mayors and police was quite as bitter as what the city witnessed 22 years ago, when Mr. de Blasio’s old boss, Mr. Dinkins, failed to tame an actual police riot.
Here is the New York Times story from 1992 about that riot:
Thousands of off-duty police officers thronged around City Hall yesterday, swarming through police barricades to rally on the steps of the hall and blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge for nearly an hour in the most unruly and angry police demonstration in recent memory.
The 300 uniformed officers who were supposed to control the crowd did little or nothing to stop the protesters from jumping barricades, tramping on automobiles, mobbing the steps of City Hall or taking over the bridge. In some cases, the on-duty officers encouraged the protesters.
What were the police protesting? Dinkins wanted to create a civilian review board to follow up on complaints of police misconduct, among other things. (That review board exists today.)
This doesn't discount the bind de Blasio now finds himself in, wedged between voters who rallied to his calls for police reform and police — rallied by their own union reps — who want to feel their mayor supports them. But he (and his politics) did not invent this conflict.