In 2011, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg got himself in hot water when he declared “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.”
It was not—not the seventh biggest and not an army—but Bloomberg was not far off the mark. With a current uniformed strength of about 36,000 and powerful unions, the New York Police Department is a profound force in the city, from the streets to the suites and in the corridors of political power. It has shaped the national and even international imagination in countless books, movies and television shows. The mayor rightfully exercises civilian control over the department and to varying degrees, and with varying success, police commissioners rightfully have struggled to keep the NYPD from being bent too far to the political will of the city’s top elected official.
That drama is being played out again today. Mayor Bill de Blasio, his eyes on higher national office, is wrapping his political machine around New York law enforcement, locking down avenues of transparency and independence that could cause him trouble. The mayor cloaks his moves in the progressive politics of his base but no one is fooled. This is about Iowa and New Hampshire and the kind of raw political power that de Blasio needs to exercise to keep his long-shot presidential hopes alive.
The mayor visited Iowa in December, insisting he was not running for president. His wife, Chirlane McCray, was in New Hampshire earlier this month. The New York Times recently noted that Ms. McCray “suddenly seems to be everywhere… [she] has stepped up her out-of-town travel, meeting with political leaders, speaking about her signature mental health initiative, networking and building the family brand outside New York City.”
In March, de Blasio installed a top political aide, Phillip Walzak, as NYPD spokesman, with the rank of deputy commissioner. Walzak was communications director for de Blasio’s successful 2013 mayoral run, a key City Hall aide, and helped run the mayor’s 2017 re-election campaign. New York’s police unions immediately denounced the appointment. “This is the clearest sign yet that the de Blasio administration thinks the NYPD’s primary mission is to serve as a political tool, not to protect the public safety of all New Yorkers,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch.
“With the mayor’s former campaign manager now overseeing information given to the press,” Lynch added, “…how can either police officers or the public have any confidence that it will be dispensed with an eye toward public safety and justice and not filtered through a purely political lens?”
Police Commissioner James O’Neill is an NYPD insider appointed by de Blasio. “When Jim O’Neill became police commissioner in 2016, he was known as a ‘cop’s cop,’” noted the influential police-affairs columnist Len Levitt. “With his recent appointment of Phillip Walzak as the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, he seems more like the mayor’s cop.”
The New York Post reported that several of O’Neill’s top aides opposed Walzak when rumors of the appointment first surfaced. And the head of another police union, Ed Mullins of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, told the Post that of the “many highly talented media personalities in the selection pool, it seems the Commissioner expects us all to believe the Mayor’s office had the best people. I guess we’ll see if the NYPD’s communications are separate from City Hall.”
De Blasio and O’Neill have triggered unease in police ranks with a sweeping series of high-level changes and forced retirements mainly aimed at instituting the mayor’s signature “neighborhood policing” concept. We have been to neighborhood policing dance before. The police seek stronger ties with communities to lower crime. “While neighborhood policing may be a terrific concept,” Levitt wrote, “there have been problems with its implementation that neither de Blasio or O’Neill have publicly acknowledged.” One of the problems, Levitt notes elsewhere, is a “behind-the-scenes battle” raging at the NYPD over the policy’s effectiveness and rollout.
Earlier this month, the mayor struck again, issuing an executive order limiting the power of the city’s independent-minded Department of Investigations. The issue at hand involved department commissioner Mark Peters’ control of a special unit policing corruption in New York’s vast education system. But the Post reportedthat the real reason for the executive order was that Peters, a former de Blasio ally, had issued “a series of scathing reports…against various city agencies, including the Housing Authority.”
The head of the City Council’s investigations committee—fellow Democrat Ritchie Torres—denounced the de Blasio move as “an insidious power grab” and “part of an orchestrated campaign to remove the DOI commissioner.” Torres told the Post, “if disempowering the agency that investigates you fails to constitute a conflict of interest—let alone an abuse of power—then I’m not sure what does.”
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
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