Two men in dress slacks and ties walked past a police reform protest outside City Hall last week.

“They should just stop committing crimes,” one said to the other, concluding that then the NYPD would lay off.

The demonstrators were urging the passage of two controversial police reform bills bogged down in the City Council, which were called "common sense" and "reasonable" during the event on Thursday.

The activists were addressing lawmakers and the mayor, but in reality their calls might have been directed at New Yorkers like those two men, whose gut-instinct disregard for police reform is the real reason that elected officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio are having difficulty charting a tightrope course between status quo and reform.
    
Protecting New Yorkers' rights

The two bills in question, introduced by council members Ritchie Torres and Antonio Reynoso, are supported by a majority of the council but haven't made much progress since they were introduced in 2014.

The first bill would require police officers to identify themselves and explain why they stopped an individual at the end of any interaction that didn’t end with an arrest or summons. None of the above applies in circumstances when doing so would put the officer or public in danger, or compromise a legitimate investigation.

The second addresses searches without warrants: Police officers would be required to inform individuals that it was their right to withdraw or deny consent to a search. In other words, the bill affirms the protections of the 4th Amendment.

Both bills are intended to codify the way police officers are supposed to act — the implication being that some officers don’t always follow these guidelines, particularly in minority communities where their presence is strongly felt. Reynoso said at the rally last week that the bills were meant to “improve the relationship” between police and communities, not hurt it.

Yet Commissioner William Bratton has opposed council reforms — including these particular common-sense bills, which he sees as unnecessary.

The mayor has been on the same page as his commissioner. The speaker of the city council too has shown little appetite to speed these bills along, preferring instead to continue pressure for another set of criminal justice reform bills, focusing on summonses and the courts. But directly engaging with police strategy and behavior has been more difficult for the council.

Torres says he’s prepared to continue the uphill battle for the bills, given the “culture of blind deference to the police department in general and Bratton in particular.”

“The NYPD has no right to dictate to the city council, the terms to which it legislates,” Torres says. 

The tightrope

The NYPD wields serious political influence in NYC, partially because New Yorkers like the passerby at the rally take for granted the police department's claim that quality-of-life policing has led to the city's low crime rate. Activists contend that such policing comes with an often-ignored cost.

Both groups have limited patience for elected officials who appear to be gambling with public safety, although both argue they’re looking for better policing along with safer streets for all of NYC. Progressive de Blasio brought Bratton back to New York in hopes of placating those who feared that his rhetoric on policing signaled that he would check the NYPD as activists demanded. And Bratton's arrival infuriated those who thought de Blasio's election indicated a shift from the broken-windows policing of the past.

It’s been a dicey period for de Blasio — navigating increasingly serious investigations into his campaign donors and affiliates, and making it through a presidential primary in which he always seemed second fiddle on the winning team. Losing the flank support that Bratton provides in police-friendly circles would be a particularly difficult blow as he goes into his own re-election.

And yet the reformers and activists in his base are voicing their displeasure — from activists at the reform rally to other groups continuing to protest police and criminal justice practices, such as supporters of Ramarley Graham, who rallied outside Gracie Mansion Sunday night, and those of Akai Gurley, who feel that they have been let down by the judicial system.

As it has been in the past, conversations about the police are at the urgent and emotional center of the city discourse, one of the few subjects that touches on the way we all coexist.

Whether de Blasio wants it or not, that conversation continues.

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