Compassion and a Mayoral Campaign that Could Put a Crimp In It

With a Democratic mayor, New York City’s government would be more compassionate than the business-like regime of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Just how far this sympathy should extend caused the biggest division among the candidates at the March 20 LGBT mayoral forum at Baruch College.

Chris Quinn, the speaker of the City Council for the past seven years, drew the line at a measure that would help working people — paid sick leave, a benefit provided by virtually every nation in Europe.

Quinn recognized the legitimacy of the issue and its potential good, but said now is not the time. Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, strongly supported it, as did former Comptroller Bill Thompson, his successor, John Liu, and former City Councilman Sal Albanese.

But Quinn has found that her olive branch to the business community has not forestalled opposition from Establishment types. At a ceremonial occasion the same week as the forum, Bloomberg blasted Quinn’s proposal to have an inspector general for the police department. The new post would be placed inside the existing Department of Investigation, an agency that seldom ruffles feathers as it goes about its oversight responsibilities for other areas of municipal government.

Even this small step is too much for Republicans and conservatives. The front page of the New York Post denounced Quinn with the headline “JUDAS!,” one of the most hated figures in Christendom. The newspaper characterized Quinn as a liar who cannot be trusted.

The Christ figure she is accused of betraying is the New York City Police Department. Given reduced anxieties about crime in New York in recent years, it may seem improbable, but the Republicans and Bloomberg believe they can mobilize voters by demanding hands off the NYPD.

The Post editorial, which accompanied two pages of news stories about the evils of an inspector general, spelled out the political implications. “The Quinns and Thompsons are trying to have it both ways,” the newspaper argued. Although they are the two major Democrats most tempered in their criticism of the police, they want to keep stop and frisk but “tinker” with it, according to the Post. But an IG would “strangle it.” Fighting words calculated to arouse angry voters.

The editorial offered Thompson and Quinn a way out — abandon the reform. Doing that would betray their political supporters, causing particular problems for the Council speaker, who is fighting a narrative that she has moved to the right in recent years. Caving to demands from the likes of the Post would lead to charges that they had been intimidated into abandoning a sound reform. Their campaigns would likely be crippled.

An IG is a thoughtful way to address the policies and practices of the NYPD. The existing Civilian Complaint Review Board is intended to vet individual encounters between police and civilians. An IG would look at larger issues like police performance standards and patterns of improper conduct.

For example, it is illegal for the NYPD to have arrest quotas that might encourage trumped up charges, lying under oath, and poor judgment about an incident’s seriousness. In a federal court trial, police officers are testifying that their union told them about arrest quotas — 20 tickets and one arrest a month. Such behavior, if proven, would show the law is being circumvented with the connivance of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. This is the sort of corruption an IG could investigate.

The Post opposes “tinkering” because it favors no change at all, instead advocating for a system that is indefensible but can only be protected if it remains hidden. What police reformers seek are new performance standards. They want to know why breaking up a fight and getting two people to shake hands and make up get no credit, while writing a ticket about public urination at 3 a.m. is a mark of good performance.

The reformers’ meta objective is to create a new relationship between police and the communities they serve. Presumably, everybody in a housing project or a neighborhood wants to stop drive-by shootings and gang violence. Why don’t neighbors tell the police about suspicious activity? The present system discourages friendly and constructive interactions between the police and the neighborhood. Reformers want to create trust, while the police currently promote resentment. Stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of innocent people generates anger and leads both the community and cops to make bad decisions.

Leveraging the dramatic reduction in crime since 1990, a police commissioner who expects different behavior from police officers can generate different results. Fewer crimes mean fewer people who are familiar or have practical experience with breaking the law, a dynamic that Franklin E. Zimring, a University of California at Berkeley Law School professor, explains in a clip available on YouTube. It is simple common sense that as conditions change — New York is a much safer city than a generation ago — so should governmental policy change.

Last week’s candidate debate showed off a Democratic field with long and strong gay rights records across the board. Watching de Blasio and Quinn, in particular, demonstrate their detailed knowledge about homeless LGBT youth and preventing sero-conversion among gay men proved that our community’s concerns are at the top of the agenda in the Democratic mayoral primary contest.

But last week’s attacks on Quinn and others in the New York Post remind us that Democrats may not necessarily control this year’s general election debate. Conservative, even racist forces are going to grab headlines and change the subject when they can.

So even if you heard things you wanted to at the Baruch debate, fasten your seat belts. You know what kind of ride it could be.