Early this afternoon, at a press conference about an NYPD pilot program to test body cameras, a reporter asked Mayor Bill de Blasio about the potential for “rioting” if a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict the cop who used a chokehold on Eric Garner. De Blasio started answering even as the final syllable of the question hung in the air.
“I think the NYPD has done an extraordinary job of respecting individuals’ right to protest, and that’s why these protests have been so peaceful,” the mayor said. “My anticipation is that that’s what will continue.”
He and the city are about to find out. Roughly two hours after de Blasio spoke, the Times broke the news that there would be no charges brought against Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Coming barely one week after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict cop Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, and ten days after a Brooklyn housing cop shot and killed Akai Gurley, the Garner decision arrives at a racially charged moment.
The mayor’s event inside the new police academy in Queens was only his latest attempt to get ahead of the grand jury decision. De Blasio had planned to spend much of this week staging events to encourage calm, to underscore that he’s trying to reform the NYPD to mend relations with minority New Yorkers, and to insulate himself politically if the reaction to the Garner decision turns out to be chaotic.
That campaign got an unanticipated assist on Monday, when the mayor was invited to the White House and sat alongside President Barack Obama during a discussion about how to improve relations between cops and communities. On Tuesday, de Blasio went to the Ingersoll Houses in Brooklyn to announce a citywide decrease in crime, and a drop at Ingersoll in particular. He and police commissioner Bill Bratton repeated their belief in the right to protest, but also were emphatic that vandalism and violence would not be tolerated — appearing eager to head off a repeat of demonstrations that had shut down the FDR and the Manhattan Bridge in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decisions.
Behind the scenes, de Blasio has been mapping out possible scenarios for months, similar to how he planned for the eventual arrival of an Ebola case in New York. Top City Hall aides, including intergovernmental affairs chief Emma Wolfe and community affairs head Marco Carrion, have been reaching out to neighborhood groups and advocates, taking temperatures and urging peaceful responses should the Garner case end without an indictment. They’ve also been closely monitoring social media. One result of all that thorough preparation is that this afternoon de Blasio quickly canceled his plans to sign some bills at City Hall and instead went to a Staten Island church to meet with religious and civil-rights leaders.
The mayor has been working the phones this afternoon; whether he’s already spoken with Al Sharpton isn’t clear, but the fact that the mayor and the Rev have an ongoing dialogue should help. Sharpton is scheduled to have Garner’s mother and widow on his MSNBC show tonight at 6 p.m. They will no doubt be outraged and heartbroken — and understandably so. But earlier this afternoon, de Blasio was already setting the right civic tone — and making a plea.
“We’re here in the police academy, with the commissioner, talking about body cameras for greater transparency and accountability, on top of a host of other reforms this department is undertaking,” he said, somewhat plaintively. “That’s the result of a decision of the people [in the 2013 mayoral race], and the result of a lot of peaceful protest. Think about stop-and-frisk: a lot of us were at the silent march several years ago, calling for a change in that policy. That policy has been profoundly changed, because the people expressed themselves peacefully. That’s what will make change in this city, and that’s what we’re committed to.”
Arguing against police tactics did indeed help get de Blasio elected. Now he’s nearly a year into running the police department—and for all the noise of the next few days, the hard work of his crucial partnership with Bratton is really just starting.