During his first term, Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to fulfill his local responsibilities while also becoming a national voice. It was that broader audience he was speaking to on Tuesday with a pre-taped appearance on the podcast Pod Save the People, hosted by civil rights activist DeRay McKesson.
McKesson came to national prominence with the Black Lives Matter movement and has pushed for police reform in a number of high-voltage venues since then. Naturally the conversation with de Blasio turned to criminal justice.
In that realm, de Blasio displayed positions grounded in the centrist political realities of NYC more than the reform movement percolating around the country. For example, he praised the policy of aggressively enforcing low-level offenses on the theory that they could lead to more serious crimes. That is known as broken-windows policing, or quality-of-life policing, which are similar phrases for philosophies adopted by Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio said it was “necessary.”
And regarding turnstile jumping, the marquee arrestable offense that reform advocates say is unequally enforced, de Blasio the usually liberal crusader said, “I’m just not convinced that the reality of turnstile jumping should be seen through the larger prism that a lot of us feel around social justice.”
De Blasio’s tug of war
When de Blasio is granted his national platform, usually he is able to focus on the soaring rhetoric and hopeful cadences of his progressive economic vision. To express his opposition to President Donald Trump, de Blasio has traveled as far as Hamburg, Germany, with the message that mayors might save the world.
He saves some of that energy for criminal justice reform as well, and he has some accomplishments. They include keeping crime down while vacating thousands of warrants and working with the City Council and district attorneys offices on summons reform, making some low-level offenses like drinking in public just a ticket as opposed to an arrest.
But the political realities of New York, or perhaps de Blasio’s long-held beliefs, mean that many NYPD policies have carried over from previous mayors. De Blasio’s first police commissioner was even brought back from Giuliani’s time: William Bratton, the proselytizer of broken-windows policing.
Advocates say a focus on low-level offenses gets things backward. Better to ticket someone than arresting them for peeing on the street, to be sure, but why not build more public restrooms? You don’t want people hopping the turnstile: Why not fund a program to subsidize a swipe? De Blasio told McKesson on the podcast that the “typical person” arrested for fare evasion “has money on them . . . so it’s not an economic issue from everything we can see.” Then, contradictorily, he suggested fixing “the front end issue” for those who have economic challenges rather than decriminalizing the hop, a state issue. Yet for years he refused to pay for a widely supported program funding low-income riders, before slotting one this week into a longshot tax proposal that has little chance of becoming a reality. Plus, he has shown little sympathy for subway panhandlers, who he calls “frustrating.”
The progression of his progressiveness
Those contradictions are emblematic of some of the differences between de Blasio’s rhetoric and his positions.
He should be applauded, for example, for working to reduce the use of stop-and-frisk, the controversial policing tactic found illegal by a federal district court. He and other candidates campaigned on the issue in 2013. But due to legal pressure and increased scrutiny, Mayor Michael Bloomberg already had been reducing those stops from an outrageous high of 685,724 in 2011 to 191,851 in 2013. A look at the quarterly counts shows that Bloomberg’s last quarter as mayor was close to Blasio’s first few, between 10,000 and 15,000 stops. In subsequent years, de Blasio has continued that progression, with 2,862 stops in the first quarter of 2017, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union report of NYPD numbers.
The mayor also likes to tout his marijuana reforms, noting that in 2014 Bratton announced summonses rather than arrests for low-level possession. Some people are pushing further for full legalization. And a racial disparity persists in the marijuana arrests that do take place: regularly, close to 90 percent of those arrested are black and Hispanic.
When McKesson questioned de Blasio about ways to reduce that disparity, the mayor’s primary answer was that he has expanded implicit bias training for police.
After the interview, McKesson said by text message that the interview was short and he looked forward to continuing the conversation with de Blasio. “I think that implicit bias training may be a part of the solution but that it alone will not end the disparities,” he wrote.
Escaping from the tough local policy questions, de Blasio spent the last four minutes of the interview talking about the national sphere and his nemesis, Trump. He was back to the soaring rhetoric.
“Let’s just grab the moment,” he finished, describing the current political atmosphere.