The leaflet was meant to highlight anger on the part of police officers with the mayor of New York. It encouraged officers to fill their names in on a document that read, ”I, . . ., a New York City police officer, want all of my family and brother officers who read this to know [that] in the event of my death [the mayor and his police commissioner should] be denied attendance of any memorial service in my honor as their attendance would only bring disgrace to my memory.”
That’s how deep the divisions ran.
The leaflet mentioned above was distributed in 1997. The mayor in question was Rudolph Giuliani, and The New York Times reported on rank-and-file members of the powerful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association urging fellow officers to sign the documents. Though the union did not officially sanction the jab at the mayor, its circulation among officers “demonstrates the depths of their discontent,” reported the Times in an article on a contract dispute in which Giuliani was taking a hard line against pay increases.
Today NYPD officers can download a similar document from the PBA website and sign it as one of many protests against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recognition of tensions between minority communities and the NYPD in the aftermath of a grand jury decision not to indict an officer who was videotaped choking Eric Garner shortly before the Staten Island man’s death. Those protests drew national attention Saturday, as officers turned their backs on images of the mayor delivering a eulogy at the funeral service for NYPD Officer Rafael Ramos, who was shot and killed a week earlier along with his partner, Wenjian Liu, in their squad car.
As raw as the tensions are today in New York, it is important to remember that the city’s mayors have frequently clashed with the police union and its leadership. The clashes have been intense, they have been bitter and they have often extended over a number of years. Some mayors who have been at odds with the PBA—like David Dinkins, who established the framework for the current incarnation of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board—have been narrowly defeated for re-election. And there have already been plenty of attempts to compare Dinkins and de Blasio (a former Dinkins aide). But Dinkins is the exception, not the rule.
For the most part, New York mayors who have clashed with the PBA (going back to epic figures such as Fiorello La Guardia and including long-serving managers such as Robert Wagner Jr.) have survived politically. That may be the most important lesson for Mayor de Blasio to take away from the current conflict—which comes amid broader wrangling over contracts, pensions and reform of the department.