NEW YORK — The city’s top law enforcement official went on a media blitz Aug. 8 to deny that the chokehold death of a black suspect shows that police are singling out minorities in a crackdown on minor offenses and to insist that Mayor Bill de Blasio is “very pro-cop.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said he wanted to counter “some of the misimpressions and some of the momentum that’s been gained by self-serving interests” since the videotaped death last month of Eric Garner. Bratton also spoke to CNN, CBS and local television affiliates for most of the day.
The Mayor, speaking about the case for the first time since Aug. 5, said tensions that arose after Garner’s July 17 death must be part of the city’s past as it moves toward unity.
“This has to be a turning point moment,” de Blasio said. “We can’t let any moment that leaves us so sad and pained be an end point. It has to be an opening of a door to something better.”
That, de Blasio said, includes a plan already underway to retrain the New York Police Department on how best to work more closely with the community.
The amateur video showing officers struggling to arrest Garner on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island and a subsequent medical examiner finding that a chokehold, barred under police policy, contributed to his death have raised questions about the NYPD’s “broken windows” strategy — the idea that fighting smaller crimes like drinking in public discourages more dangerous behavior.
Bratton responded that there are more misdemeanor arrests in minority neighborhoods because more officers are assigned there in response to higher crime rates.
“Are there more minorities impacted by enforcement? Yes. I’m not denying that,” he said. “But it’s not an intentional focus on minorities. It’s a focus on behavior.” He added: “We are not a racist organization — not at all.”
Bratton and de Blasio also have come under fire from police union officials who were offended by the sight of the Police Commissioner and Mayor sharing a dais with the Rev. Al Sharpton, a vocal NYPD critic, last week at a City Hall forum.
The pair looked on glumly as Sharpton lectured that “the best way to make police stop using illegal chokeholds is to perp-walk one of them that did.”
The perception that de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, has sided with civil rights activists at the expense of officers on the street “is something I personally feel very badly about because I’ve spent a lot of time with this mayor,” Bratton said.
“I think he’s getting a bad rap on this, and I think over time that will be shown. … I think he’s very pro-cop, I think he’s very pro-New York and I think he’s very pro-community.”
The Commissioner said he had no regrets about sharing a stage with Sharpton. “Whether you like Al Sharpton or not, he clearly is a spokesperson, particularly for African-Americans, and that is reality,” he said.
Garner’s death defied a trend of less use of force by the NYPD in the past several years, Bratton said. For every 100 arrests, two result in some type of use of force, a far lower average than most police departments in the country, he said.
“This is not a police force that abuses its powers in the sense of use of force,” he said.
Bratton has called the Garner video “disturbing.” But he declined to comment on the specifics of the encounter, citing an ongoing investigation by prosecutors to determine whether there will be criminal charges brought against any of the arresting officers.
Ed Mullins, head the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said that Bratton’s effort at damage control wasn’t likely to sway union members who believe the mayor has botched his handling of the Garner affair.
“I like this police commissioner,” Mullins said, “but I have to disagree with him on this one.”
By Tom Hays. AP reporter Julie Walker contributed to this story.