NYC’s Police-Union Leaders Are Unhinged

NYPD officers turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funeral for Officer Weijian Liu, 2014.
NYPD officers turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funeral for Officer Wenjian Liu in 2014. Photo: Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Over the span of 12 hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning, a gunman in New York City opened fire on two police officers in a parked car, then stormed a Bronx precinct and shot another before surrendering. No one was killed, but the injuries rattled the NYPD and, for some, evoked painful memories of the 2014 shooting that claimed the lives of two officers — Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos — in Brooklyn, according to the New York Times. This weekend’s shooter, Robert Williams, seems to have been motivated by a range of factors. He has a history of violent confrontation with law enforcement — he engaged in a shoot-out with police in 2002, for which he was imprisoned and recently paroled — and has been reeling from the 2018 murder of his only child, 18-year-old Robert Williams Jr. Local officials cast his actions over the weekend as attempted assassinations. Familiar myths began to circulate about an NYPD under siege, assailed not just by crazed vigilantes but by a local government eager to undermine and endanger its officers.

This is a familiar narrative to anyone who has observed the unhinged behavior of New York City’s police-union leaders. When Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted his outrage at the violence — claiming the shootings were an attack not only on police but “on ALL New Yorkers and everything we believe in” — the official Twitter account for the Sergeants Benevolent Association replied in characteristic fashion: “Mayor DeBlasio, the members of the NYPD are declaring war on you! We do not respect you, DO NOT visit us in hospitals. You sold the NYPD to the vile creatures, the 1% who hate cops but vote for you. NYPD cops have been assassinated because of you. This isn’t over, Game on!” It’s unclear what the union means by “war,” but, as a general principle, it’s uncommon for a coalition of armed government officials to declare it against a city’s mayor. But such is the unusual position occupied by police unions relative to both the law and the populace their officers serve. In the course of defending their members in disputes with management — as is required of all labor unions — they embrace a fascistic mode of reflexive defensiveness, insisting on universal deference to law enforcement and shoring it up by threatening their critics.

In the SBA’s case, most of these broadsides are issued via Ed Mullins, the union’s flamboyantly racist president. Perhaps known best for expressing his loud disgust at the financial settlements reached by New York with the Central Park Five and the family of Eric Garner, Mullins made more recent headlines when he sent a bigoted email to SBA members last summer. The union head urged its recipients to “pay close attention to every word” of the video embedded therein, which he said expressed “what goes through the mind of real policemen every single day on the job.” It was a 15-minute rant against “Section 8 scam artists, “welfare queens,” and how the Obama Administration “forever [vilified] its nation’s police while simultaneously granting blacks crime as their new entitlement.” Mullins later apologized for sending the video — which he had described as “the best … [he’d] ever seen telling the public the absolute truth” — and claimed he hadn’t actually watched it before sharing.

But the SBA’s hostility toward de Blasio in particular dates back further, to 2013. At the time, the then–mayoral candidate was running on promises to reform the city’s unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policies. Police officials interpreted this suggestion that they obey the law to mean de Blasio was running an “anti-police campaign,” to quote former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly — a tension exacerbated in 2014 when the mayor spoke openly about the fraught relationship between black people and law enforcement, using his black son’s experiences as a lens. When officers Liu and Ramos were killed later that year, police turned their backs on de Blasio at the Brooklyn hospital where the bodies were being kept. Many more echoed the gesture at Liu’s funeral the following weekend. “There’s blood on many hands tonight,” said Patrick Lynch, the comparably unhinged president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “That blood on the hands starts at the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.”

Ever since, the narrative has persisted that de Blasio is uniquely antipathetic toward police and that their mutual tensions are irreconcilable. Among the many ironies is how shy of a dramatic overhaul the de Blasio administration has actually fallen. Despite scaling back “stop and frisk,” the mayor has declined to abandon “broken windows” policing and overseen a dramatic expansion of the NYPD’s gang database, which targets thousands of mostly black and brown New Yorkers for surveillance despite their not having committed any crimes. He has also presided over a racist crackdown on commuters by transit police and claimed to be “repulsed” by the protesters fighting them. All undermine the notion that the mayor has significantly hamstrung the city’s law-enforcement apparatus or encouraged open season on the culling of its ranks.

Nor is the zeal with which police unions encourage such narratives unique to New York. Union heads from Cleveland to St. Louis and back have responded to law-enforcement-reform protests, like Black Lives Matter, by marshaling public opinion to characterize them as anti-American and often terroristic. This has led to a series of so-called Blue Lives Matter bills passing in state legislatures to lend added protections to police. But more fundamental, the same line is pursued to justify a range of horrifying behavior. In the eyes of many police unions, no officer-initiated shooting or act of brutality is unjustified and no misdeed too severe to cost an officer their job. The dogged advocacy of groups like the SBA and PBA on behalf of bad officers augments a system already loath to discipline them. And they’re not above declaring “war” on people who dare to object — even if those critics include the very mayor for whom they work. The conclusion is unavoidable: In New York and elsewhere, a bulk of police unions is institutionally uninterested in sharing civil society on equal terms with people who think the police are sometimes wrong. They’re bad-faith actors who would trade democracy for their brand of authoritarianism any day. They should be treated accordingly.

NYC’s Police-Union Leaders Are Unhinged