Soon after taking office as New York police commissioner in January 2014, William Bratton fired two respected three-star chiefs. “The department is moving in another direction,” Bratton reportedly told them. The press and public barely noticed.
At the end of October, Bratton promoted the NYPD’s chief of department to first deputy commissioner, a move that bumped the chief up from the department’s third-highest to its second-highest position. A week later, the newly promoted first deputy commissioner resigned, having decided that his portfolio was not powerful enough. The abortive promotion engulfed the police department and City Hall in crisis. Stories about it poured out of the city’s newspapers and airwaves on a daily basis; protesters and politicians took to the steps of City Hall to denounce Commissioner Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio for allegedly triggering the chief’s resignation.
The difference between the two sets of management changes? The targets of the earlier firings—Chief of Detectives Phil Pulaski and Chief of Internal Affairs Charles Campisi—were white. The recipient of the October promotion—Chief of Department Phillip Banks III—was black.
The furor over the Banks promotion and resignation exemplifies race politics at their surreal worst. It also provides a warning signal of how desperate the forces are trying to bring down Bratton, now serving his second tour as the city’s police commissioner. New York’s race-mongers twisted the Banks episode beyond recognition to serve their agenda. By the time the dust had settled, the city’s left-wing race activists had made common cause with the conservative New York Post, and the mayor’s wife—a suspected ally of the activists—had gone on record associating Commissioner Bratton with progressive police reform. Meanwhile, the fate of New York-style proactive policing hangs in the balance.
The four-star chief of department—Banks’s position before Bratton promoted him—oversees the NYPD’s core policing functions, known as its “operational” component. The department chief also co-runs Compstat, the famous weekly crime meetings in which precinct commanders are grilled about crime trends in their jurisdictions. Compstat, initiated during Bratton’s first tour as commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is the nerve center of the NYPD, the place where crime-fighting strategies are rigorously evaluated and honed, and where no-excuses accountability is imposed on police officials.
Banks was by several accounts an adequate but not stellar Compstat manager. As one sergeant put it: “Banks was no Esposito,” referring to the previous hard-charging chief of department, Joseph Esposito. Banks’s questions to the precinct commanders under review could be vague and unfocused. “What is the culture like there?” he might ask regarding a housing project with a shooting spike. He could talk longer than was necessary. On the potentially positive side of the ledger, he took a strong interest in non-law-enforcement responses to crime problems, especially regarding teens—not necessarily a bad thing. “Did we need to put the handcuffs on?” he might say following a juvenile arrest.
In moving Banks to the position of first deputy commissioner, Bratton clearly wanted to clear space to bring his own preferred candidate into the chief of department slot, an indisputable management prerogative when the employees are white. Bratton had known Chief of Patrol James O’Neill since their days together in New York’s transit police, and O’Neill’s first day on the job as the new chief of department seemed to confirm Bratton’s choice. “O’Neill is one smart fellow,” remarked a deputy commissioner after observing his leadership of Compstat. The commanders of the South Bronx’s 40th and 42nd precincts had been called in to discuss a spate of public housing robberies and shootings. “O’Neill was gracious and his questions were on target,” said the deputy commissioner. O’Neill also has a much stronger operational background than Banks, having commanded several key law enforcement units in Harlem and the Bronx as well as city-wide divisions.
The Banks promotion had its own internal logic. (The first deputy commissioner position was open because its most recent occupant, Rafael Piñeiro, had resigned under pressure from Bratton, who was dissatisfied with his performance. Former police commissioner Ray Kelly had elevated Piñeiro—the department’s inevitably labeled “top Latino”—and Banks to their ultimate ranks at the end of his tenure.) Banks’s background was in community affairs, and Bratton intended to give him responsibility for rebuilding allegedly frayed community relations. Banks would have managed the department’s crucial interactions with its new oversight bureaucracies, created in the name of rectifying alleged civil rights abuses by the department’s officers. Training, too, would have fallen under his jurisdiction, as well as the investigation and prosecution of rogue cops. New York’s self-nominated rights activists place these functions at the top of their list of police priorities.
Banks, however, wanted more power. He wanted the chief of department to report to him, rather than to the commissioner—an arrangement that had existed only for one year, during Bratton’s first term as commissioner, and never since. He wanted full control over the Internal Affairs Bureau, which investigates police corruption and abuse. Bratton was unwilling to rearrange the department’s command structure to that extent. And so Banks, after accepting the first deputy commissioner position, decided that he wouldn’t take it after all and resigned from the department.
The city’s race-baiters swung into action. They converted a personal dispute over power into a principled fight over police reform. They turned a promotion into a deliberate defenestration. And most preposterously, they made racial animus the driving force behind the events.
Their first step was to link Banks and Piñeiro as person-of-color allies in a fight against an anti-minority department. “Perhaps Chief Banks and Chief Piñeiro left because, after ten months, there was a level of frustration—perhaps their abrupt resignation was due to the fact that they’ve seen that this police commissioner has no real commitment to cultural change,” announced Noel Leader, of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, an anti-cop cop group, during a press conference on the City Hall steps. Reality check: Banks left because of a power dispute. Lagging “cultural change” had nothing to do with it. And the alleged Banks-Piñeiro rainbow coalition is fanciful, given that the two men were rivals, not allies.
City Council members Jumaane Williams and Vanessa Gibson drew an even more grandiose moral from the Banks resignation: “The administration must fully admit that there is a systemic issue within the NYPD that revolves around race and class in this city,” they thundered in a joint statement. What “class” had to do with the resignation was left unexplained. Other advocates made Banks, along with Piñeiro, the victim of a purge, a conceit that contradicted the claim that Banks had resigned in protest over inadequate reform and ignored the fact that Banks had been promoted, not “dismissed.”
But the most remarkable spin was that Bratton “forced out” Banks in order to get rid of minority chiefs. “You’re talking about diversity, you’re talking about affecting change, you’re talking about including everyone into the city—then why is it all of a sudden everyone up on top are now changed to white? That’s the question you should be asking,” said Charles Billups, chair of the New York Grand Council of Guardians, a coalition of black law-enforcement groups. The idea that Bratton would deliberately seek to reduce minority representation in the NYPD’s upper ranks is lunacy. Bratton, like every other police chief in America, is desperate to elevate as many minority officials as he plausibly can. (And indeed, unremarked by the advocates, Bratton promoted a black and Hispanic to Chief of Housing and Chief of Patrol, respectively, at the same time as the O’Neill promotion.) The Banks shuffle was motivated solely by Bratton’s desire to sharpen the NYPD’s crime-fighting ability, while holding on to its highest-ranking black chief. But in the world of race politics, any personnel change involving a black or Hispanic employee will be attributed to racism, if the change is perceived as negative. Once hired, blacks and Hispanics become untouchable if an employer wants to avoid a public-relations fiasco.
The blow-up over Banks’s resignation proceeded according to drearily predictable script. But things grew less conventional when the New York Post, the city’s conservative tabloid and a foe of Mayor de Blasio, claimed that de Blasio’s wife had erupted in anger at Bratton over the incident. “I TOLD YOU WE CAN’T TRUST HIM [i.e., Bratton]!” a Post headline blared, allegedly quoting a Chirlane McCray rant to her husband upon learning of Banks’s resignation. McCray’s views matter, since de Blasio has elevated her to a quasi-policy-making position within his administration. The Post also claimed that de Blasio had personally dressed Bratton down over the loss of Banks.
De Blasio and Bratton immediately convened a press conference to deny the Post’s supposed scoop. De Blasio offered a ringing endorsement of the commissioner and the NYPD, calling the department “the best it’s ever been.” He firmly yoked himself to Bratton and the NYPD: “I’m not going to be distracted. Commissioner Bratton’s not going to be distracted. NYPD’s not going to be distracted.”
McCray’s repudiation of the Post story was even more emphatic and seemingly heartfelt. “The only effective defense against lies is the truth, so here it is: I admire Commissioner Bratton and the work he is doing. I have never questioned his integrity. I respect the decision of Chief of Department Philip Banks to resign. And most importantly, I will continue to do everything I can to support the crucial reforms undertaken by Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton,” she announced via press release. In a dizzying twist on identity politics, McCray blamed the Post’s “lies” on the lack of “diversity” in its newsroom. “[H]ow do these lies make it through the editorial process and end up in a major newspaper? . . . I think it comes down to this: Too many city newsrooms do not reflect the population of New York City or the experiences of the majority of New Yorkers.”
In other words, a storyline suggesting that McCray was upset at the loss of “diversity” in the upper ranks of the NYPD was not only a fabrication, it was itself the product of inadequate diversity. A “diverse” newsroom that reflected the “experiences of the majority of New Yorkers” would not have ginned up such a “lie,” McCray argued. Only people who “oppose the efforts of Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton to create a more fair and equal policing system” would resort to such tactics.
Whether she realized it or not, McCray had turned the tables on the race activists, putting them in the same camp as the anti-de Blasio New York Post. In response, the race activists sided with the arch-enemy tabloid: “I fully believe the quote his wife said. [Bratton] can’t be trusted because it’s a fact,” Guardians chair Billups sniffed. Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara said that he was “not satisfied” and “extremely disappointed in [de Blasio’s] response” to the Post story.
Meanwhile, the first deputy commissioner slot had suddenly become a black job, pursuant to the rule that once a position has been held by a black or Hispanic, it must continue to be held by a black or Hispanic. President Obama’s recent appointment of federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as U.S. attorney general observed this mandate. The “black job” rule assumes that for every open position a qualified black exists, and that the failure to appoint a black results from racism. Every candidate floated by the NYPD for Banks’s job was black, including a former commissioner of the city’s department of citywide administrative services—not exactly an obvious choice for the NYPD’s second in command. Bratton eventually selected Benjamin Tucker, a former NYPD official who had spent the last three decades in such administrative jobs as assistant director for the Civilian Complaint Review Board—a body notoriously hostile to and ignorant of the police—and executive director of the city Commission on Human Rights, as well as working in the federal government and at several universities. The fact that Bratton had already brought Tucker into his administration in January as deputy commissioner of training would be reassuring—if that hire was not itself driven by race considerations.
Bratton operates in a radically different environment than when he first became New York police commissioner in 1994. Back then, he served a mayor who fiercely opposed race politics. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani disbanded the city’s identity-based community affairs offices and slashed contracting quotas. He spurned the race-baiting Al Sharpton; Sharpton retaliated by torpedoing Giuliani’s growing approval from the black community, which had been building in response to the record-breaking crime drop in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Giuliani allowed Bratton to shape his top management team based on merit alone, resulting in a group of hard-chargers who revolutionized policing.
Today, Sharpton is in Mayor de Blasio’s inner circle of advisors, and the other racial agitators to whom de Blasio appealed during his campaign for mayor expect comparable rewards. “We want the power. I think that’s the message we’re trying to send here,” said Queens city councilman Donovan Richards during the Banks blow-up. De Blasio cast policing in overtly racial terms during the mayoral race; once elected, he followed through on his promise to embrace an unnecessary federal monitor and an inspector general for the NYPD, all in the name of racial justice. Bratton has periodically denounced as unconstitutional some of the policing practices carried out under his predecessor Ray Kelly—criticism that may have as much to do with personal acrimony as it does with politics, given the competition between the two men. And Bratton and de Blasio recently backed down in the long-running dispute over marijuana arrests, which anti-cop advocates speciously claimed were biased against blacks. In fact, it is minority residents who demand marijuana enforcement: In the first 10 months of 2014, the NYPD received 28,000 calls complaining about marijuana smoking and dealing, calls coming overwhelmingly from black and Hispanic neighborhoods. No matter. Henceforth, individuals found with up to 25 grams of unlit marijuana will be issued non-criminal summons, rather than arrested. De Blasio pressured Bratton to accept the policy change, presumably in at least partial reaction to the Banks imbroglio, according to a source in police headquarters.
The marijuana shift either is a one-shot accommodation to the left and to the decriminalization movement or is the beginning of the end of broken-windows policing—the philosophy of enforcing low-level misdemeanor offenses to restore public order and prevent more serious crimes. Bratton continues to defend broken windows, and de Blasio has supported him, even after the death of a black man in police custody, which the anti-cop advocates blamed on misdemeanor enforcement.
In the newly racialized City Hall, Bratton walks a tightrope between what he knows about crime and policing, on the one hand, and his well-honed political instincts, on the other. How much longer he can keep his balance remains to be seen. But de Blasio finds himself on even more complicated political terrain. He realizes that his legacy depends on whether he can keep New York’s crime rate at its record low level. And he appears genuinely enthusiastic about Bratton. Supporters of law and order have been quick to assume that de Blasio intends to dismantle New York policing entirely, but they have overlooked signs to the contrary. Misdemeanor arrests—a vital measure of proactive enforcement—have stayed constant under Bratton, despite relentless pressure from the advocates to reduce them. If those start to drop, however, then the balance will have tipped decisively away from proactive policing.
For the moment, police backers should take the mayor—and his wife—at their word. Even if the Post’s McCray quote was accurate, her private feelings are less important than her public positions, in which she has joined de Blasio in backing Bratton and his still-assertive style of policing. If the mayor wants to protect New York’s historic public-safety gains, however, he will eventually have to break ranks decisively with his base over the core tenet of anti-cop agitation. That tenet holds that racially disproportionate law-enforcement activity signifies racist cops, rather than the racially disproportionate commission of crime. The assumption belongs to the disparate-impact theory of racism that animates virtually every other social policy in the de Blasio administration. The NYPD cannot, however, reduce crime where it is happening without generating racially disproportionate arrest data. De Blasio may not yet grasp the dilemma that awaits him.