JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Eric Garner and Akai Gurley were black men killed by New York City police officers. Although both deaths provoked anger in the city’s minority communities and renewed debate about policing in the nation’s largest city, the grand juries in each case brought different outcomes, with one officer indicted, one not.
And there was another striking difference: the public reactions from Mayor Bill de Blasio.
De Blasio was emotional and pained in December after a grand jury declined to indict an officer for placing Garner in a fatal chokehold, but he was cool and restrained last week when the officer who shot Gurley in a darkened stairwell was charged with manslaughter. That measured response may have helped the mayor maintain the uneasy truce he has struck with a police force that recently rebelled against him.
“The change in strategy implies the mayor may be trying to avoid fallout similar to the prior incident,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University political science professor. “If his previous response was judged to be problematic, the mayor may be learning from what he perceives to be mistakes.”
Garner’s death last July was captured on cellphone video shown around the world. It included his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe!” after Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, wrapped Garner in a chokehold. Police maintain it was a legal takedown maneuver.
When the grand jury on Staten Island, the city’s only majority white borough, declined to indict Pantaleo on Dec. 3, it reignited a rage that had been simmering since a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, declined to charge a white officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black unarmed 18-year-old.
The moment was precarious for de Blasio, who enjoyed the support of the city’s African-American community and centered his administration on mending relations between the nation’s largest police force and the communities of color.
With protests breaking out across the city, he traveled that night to a small church on Staten Island where the Garner family worshipped and addressed the moment by saying he understood black families’ despair, framing it in the context of his own biracial teenage son.
“I’ve had to worry over the years, (my wife) Chirlane has had to worry: Is Dante safe each night?” he said. “And not just from some of the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods but safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors.”
Two weeks later, when a man who had ranted online about Garner and Brown killed two city police officers, de Blasio’s words were held against him by police union leaders, who blamed him for creating an anti-New York Police Department sentiment they believe led to the killings. Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, said the mayor had “blood on his hands,” and officers turned their backs to de Blasio repeatedly.
After weeks of tension, the rift faded, in part because public opinion turned against the police as de Blasio took the high road, largely refusing to criticize the union leaders.
That peace was endangered Feb. 10 when a Brooklyn grand jury indicted Officer Peter Liang, who is Asian-American, for shooting Gurley in a housing project stairwell. As minority activists applauded the indictment, police union leaders, who had called the shooting accidental, were quick to urge that Liang receive a fair day in court.
With his relations with police again in the spotlight, de Blasio took a very different tack than he did two months prior.
Instead of an emotional speech, his press office put out a three-sentence statement in which the mayor “urged everyone to respect the judicial process as it unfolds.”
The next day, de Blasio faced reporters and was careful not to say anything that could appear to antagonize the police or share in any satisfaction that minority communities may have felt about the indictment. He again deferred to the judicial process, warned against comparing the two cases and noted that the Garner case was particularly painful “because people watched every second of his death.”
His aides dismissed the notion that de Blasio changed tactics because he was second-guessing his comments after Garner’s death.
“He calibrates according to context and circumstances while always steadfast to the core principles of public safety and reform,” Peter Ragone, a senior adviser to de Blasio, said Monday.
The police unions, to this point, have declined to comment further. Liang could face up to 15 years in prison.
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