In the closely watched world of policing in New York City, even a few words can spark controversy, as NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure discovered last week.
Talking to reporters last Thursday during a news conference, Eure said the NYPD was "in the Dark Ages" when it came to policies on use of force. Eure released a report last week that criticized the department for what he saw as problems and deficiencies in its use-of-force procedures.
That "Dark Ages" remark sparked an angry reply from Commissioner William Bratton as he spoke at his own news conference to unveil new police use-of-force guidelines addressing the problems.
"I would take strong, strong exception to that language; that is an outrageous comment," said Bratton.
"I am very proud of this organization and if the inspector general of this city feels we are in the Dark Ages, well I think you are going to have to start analyzing his capabilities to analyze," Bratton continued.
In the aftermath of the flare-up, Eure's remark drew further criticism from some who wondered if it would damage his relationship with the very department he relies upon for information, while others saw it just as another illustration of the way a choice of words in government can cause unintended problems.
"The 'Dark Ages' [remark] is stupid," said one Bratton aide, who didn't want to be identified. "He was not saying it to pick a fight but you have to be careful when you parse words."
The phrase Eure used became the focus of much of the reporting on the use-of-force issue, the aide said. Both Eure and city Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters have refused to issue an apology, as Bratton wanted.
"I think that we need to all take a deep breath and stay focused on the task ahead, which is making some serious reforms and not engage in this kind of back and forth," Peters said Friday in a radio interview.
Thomas Reppetto, a police historian and co-author of "NYPD: A City and Its Police," believed it was a mistake for Eure to use the term.
"You just don't do that. You don't use a term like Dark Ages," said Reppetto.
"I don't know what the guy was thinking, but this is not the Dark Ages in policing," Reppetto added.
Richard Aborn, head of the nonprofit Citizens Crime Commission, didn't think the issue was going to hurt Eure's relationship with the NYPD.
"I don't think it is a big deal," said Aborn on Friday. "The relationship between Eure and the police department, as I understand it, has been pretty good."
But Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College, thought that the Dark Ages metaphor was the wrong choice of words and could hurt things.
"It [NYPD] is far from perfect, and the commissioner would agree, but Dark Ages, come on!" said Muzzio.
Reppetto noted that the last time there was ever such a high-level tiff between city agencies was in 1988 when Mayor Edward Koch had to intercede with NYPD Commissioner Ben Ward and FDNY Commissioner Joseph Bruno who almost seemed to come to blows over which department had the best scuba divers.
"The police commissioner is the second most powerful post in the city since 1901 and you don't let other departments push the police department around," said Reppetto.