De Blasio, Al Sharption, William Bratton and crime and policing in New York City

Basil Wilson's picture

Bill De Blasio won the 2013 mayoralty election convincingly.  That victory put an end to 20 years of Republican domination of a Democratic city.  De Blasio ran on a progressive platform.  He made it clear that he would tackle income inequality, modify stop and frisk excesses and place new emphasis on the construction of affordable housing and not just luxury apartments for the wealthy elite.  He was also committed to pre-school education and this fall delivered on the first down payment of that campaign promise.

But the reactionary forces in the city have refused to “go gently into that good night”.  What is upsetting to these forces is Rev. Al Sharpton’s access to power in the De Blasio administration and they are using the appointment of Rachel Noerdlinger to the position of chief of staff to the Mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray to shatter that relationship.  The relationship is troubling to the shrunken reactionary forces and to the police unions representing the New York Police Department.

Al Sharpton emerged as a protest leader in the black community from the 1970s when the trio of Alton Maddox, Vernon Mason and Sharpton resisted the white backlash exploits of the then mayor of the city, Ed Koch.  They shared the resistance spotlight with other black nationalist-oriented organizations like the December 12th Movement and the Black United Front.

Racial tensions during the 1970s and 1980s were boiling over in the city partly as a result of the murder of Randolph Evans by a police officer, the death of Michael Griffith on a Brooklyn highway fleeing for his life from a white mob in Howard Beach, and the killing of Yusef Hawkins by a mob of white teenagers in Bensonhurst.  Social order was becoming increasingly brittle in New York City and it is that racial tension that led to David Dinkins’ defeat of Ed Koch in the Democratic primary and his subsequent election as Mayor in 1989.

Many of the black leaders who were in leadership positions in the 1970s and 1980s, like Elombe Brath, Sonny Carson, Jitu Weusi and Rev Herbert Daughtry have passed on or have passed the baton to a new generation.  Sharpton has survived and grown in the process.  He no longer is attired in jump suits but business suits and has built the National Action Network as a civil rights organization still with an emphasis of stopping police excesses.

The alliance between De Blasio and Sharpton has led not only to Sharpton having access to Gracie Mansion but professionals at the National Action Network like Rachel Noerdlinger obtaining good-paying jobs at City Hall.  It is amazing that any story written by the right wing press invariably mentions Ms. Noerdlinger’s salary. This implies that black folks must wallow in poverty or be just one paycheck from plunging below the poverty line.

Ms. Noerdlinger failed to mention on a Department of Investigation form that she lived with her boyfriend who has had issues with the law as a young man and was again recently charged with marijuana possession in 2011.  The Mayor has placed a letter in Ms. Noerdlinger’s personnel file but the right wing mob is clamoring for blood and has used her omission to attack the “unsavory” relationship between the Mayor and the civil rights leader.

The presumption is that Ms. Noerdlinger is responsible for the “sins” of her boyfriend. He is deemed to be unsympathetic to the police and thus threatening to the 35,000 NYPD force.  Ms. Noerdlinger’s boyfriend, Hussaun McClain, has no official position in the De Blasio administration yet the Post and the Daily News remain obsessed with the story.

What is of interest is that De Blasio appointed William Bratton as his police commissioner.  At a meeting at the soon-to-be opened headquarters of the Police Academy, Mr. Bratton exhorted his commanding officers to weed out members of the rank and file who were racists, corrupt and unprofessional.  Police culture is traditionally tribal and there is the strong tendency from police unions and the hierarchy of police departments to circle the wagon and refrain from any internal criticism.  Such conduct is anti-thetical to democratic policing.

Bratton is appropriately identified as the Police Commissioner who revolutionized policing when he was appointed Rudy Guiliani’s commissioner in 1994.  Criminologist like Franklin Zimring have argued that the expansion of NYPD’s ranks which occurred under Dinkins, the invention of Compstats and commander accountability is the reason why crime in New York City has declined precipitously in comparison to other big cities in the U.S.A.

Bratton’s return sets up an interesting paradox.  Bratton is the father along with Prof. George Kelling of “broken windows” and “zero tolerance” policing.  The presumption made by some scholars and practitioners is that an indiscretionary arrest policy of petty crimes would lead to the arrest of major crimes.  That assumption is false as both misdemeanors and felony crimes have been falling since the 1990s.  The pre-occupation with misdemeanor arrests may simply serve as a cover for police officers who simply have a propensity to abuse power.

There is still a lot to cheer in matters of crime and policing in the City.  We need not to lose sight of the big picture.  In the ten months of the De Blasio administration, most of the seven major index crimes continue remarkably to trend downwards.  As of September 21, 2014 there were 225 homicides that occurred in New York City in contrast to 246 during the same period in 2013.  In 2013, there were 335 murders, the lowest on record since the 1960s and the City is on track to push the murder rate even lower for 2014.  Of the major index crimes, only auto theft has shown a slight increase in 2014.  There has been an increase in shootings but NYPD has re-deployed additional resources to the communities where there was this uptick and that seems to have made a difference in shooting incidents.

New York City has come a long way when there were 2,262 murders in 1990 to 335 in 2013.  Overall crime has plummeted by 75 percent.  The City needs a united front to excise the unprofessional behavior that still has a foothold in NYPD.  New York City is the safest big city in the country and it can be made even safer if the police unions join with the Commissioner and the Mayor to integrate NYPD in a wholesome manner in minority communities.

Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: