On Monday, protesters gathered outside City Hall in Manhattan and demanded that New York's police commissioner, Bill Bratton, resign from office. On Tuesday, Bratton stunned the city by doing exactly that.
Bratton announced that he will step down in September, 32 months into his second stint as New York's top cop. He will then begin a new (and very lucrative) job at consulting firm Teneo.
Bratton will be replaced by James O'Neill, the NYPD's highest-ranking uniformed officer. The two have worked very closely together; de Blasio called it a "seamless transition."
Bratton and de Blasio both said his departure was not a reaction to the protests or to the corruption investigation into some NYPD officers and de Blasio donors being conducted by Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Bratton said he'd made up his mind to leave weeks ago.
Still, even if Bratton wasn't necessarily being driven out of office by the activists who happened to be protesting him on Tuesday, the demonstrators camped outside City Hall couldn't help but celebrate his departure.They had gathered on Monday with the intention of occupying City Hall Park until the NYPD is defunded and victims of police brutality are compensated. On Tuesday afternoon, a few dozen of them held "Black Lives Matter" banners and marched to the gates of City Hall as the press conference inside unfolded. They saw the announcement as a sign that their activism could at least be making a mark on the political conversation around policing. They also took the opportunity to jeer at him as he left.
At the press conference, de Blasio said Bratton's achievements included "driving down crime while repairing some of the rift between police and community." Both men, along with O'Neill, emphasized that they were committed to creating a more harmonious bond with the city's communities of color.
The protesters viewed the police commissioner's term rather differently.
"This is a garbage statement after the ongoing NYPD murders of black people, the corruption, and the gross waste of resources locking up black, brown and working class New Yorkers for jumping turnstiles even as not a single cop has served a day in jail for killing about 200 people in NYC over the last 15 years," Nabil Hassain, a protest organizer with the activist group Millions March NYC, said of de Blasio's support for Bratton.
The department's use of force against people of color has come under particular scrutiny in the wake of two high profile killings of unarmed black men by police in 2014: Eric Garner and Akai Gurley. Those killings raised questions about the training police officers were given. In the Garner case, officer Daniel Panteleo used an illegal choke hold on Garner. In Gurley's case, rookie cop Peter Liang was on a "vertical patrol" of a dark housing commission stairwell when he fired a shot into the darkness, hitting and killing Gurley in the process. Both men's deaths were ruled homicides by the medical examiner, but the officers involved emerged virtually unscathed. A grand jury declined to indict Panteleo and Liang was convicted of criminally negligent manslaughter but given a sentence that doesn't include jail time. The cases caused mass protests to erupt around the city.
As Bratton made his leaving remarks on Tuesday, it was clear that activists still hold him in contempt. Colin Ashley, a protester from the Peoples' Power Assembly group, told me he thinks de Blasio and Bratton made grave errors in their handling of policing.
"I think de Blasio and Bratton didn't take any of our demands seriously. I think de Blasio has realized the political mistake in a year ago increasing the size of the police and now the Democratic party has moved beyond him on this issue," Ashley said.
"I would say that regardless of what Bill de Blasio said the police have always been a political institution," another protester, Brendan O'Brien, from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said. "There's a reason why bankers and politicians and assembly members are constantly allowed to get away with things that are damaging to society. But when someone who is homeless jumps a turnstile he goes to prison."
At the press conference, de Blasio and Bratton touted neighborhood policing, a strategy that's being trialled in a handful of communities in New York City, as a sign that the NYPD is responding to the concerns of communities of color. De Blasio said incoming police commissioner O'Neill was the "architect of the neighborhood policing strategy" and that O'Neill "convinced [him it] would be the future of this city."
Neighborhood or "community" policing involves stationing police officers in the same neighborhoods for extended periods of time, and giving officers time away from 911 calls to make "community visits," talking to locals about their concerns and trying to understand the dynamic of neighborhoods. The policy has had mixed results in other cities like Boston and LA, the New York Times reported last year. It's particularly difficult to implement in areas where there's already a very low level of trust between residents and police.
Protester Josmar Trujillo, who lives in East Harlem, said that he remained skeptical that the NYPD can change how police interact with people of color.
"You mean rebranded," said Trujillo when asked if he thought neighborhood policing amounted to reform. "They're really good at branding. In the 1990s, community policing was all the rage. It's just the latest name they throw on it to make it sound like they're not killing people or arresting or terrorizing people. It's long been the case that community policing is a vague notion that's little less than public relations."
Trujillo said his neighborhood has felt the effects of Bratton's broken windows strategy, where low-level crimes are targeted in the theory that stamping them out will prevent more serious crimes from occurring. (de Blasio said on Tuesday that broken windows policing is not going anywhere.)
Critics say the policy unjustly draws more low-income people of color into the criminal justice system, and provides an incentive for police to harass them. Broken windows was first implemented in New York City by Bratton in the '90s when he was the head of the MTA police force. An ACLU analysis of broken windows-related summonses from 2001 to 2013 found that 81% of the more than 7 million people who received those summonses were black or Latino.
"It criminalizes people every day," said Trujillo. "It puts them into the criminal justice system for the smallest infractions, for things that most people would agree are not an issue of public safety."
Of course, the protesters don't just want reforms of the current system. They want the NYPD to be completely replaced with investment in mental health initiatives, first responders and education. Based on Tuesday's announcement, it's clear that's not on the cards from de Blasio–and that O'Neill, the new commissioner is likely to champion the same strategies Bratton will leave behind.