Mayor de Blasio Appears on Inside City Hall

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Errol Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. Earlier today the Civilian Complaint Review Board recommended misconduct charges against 65 NYPD officers in connection to alleged actions taken during the George Floyd protests last year. The Board investigated a total of 127 complaints and concluded that in more than half of those cases, the officers abused their authority, applied excessive force, made untruthful statements, or used offensive language. Here with me now to respond to that and talk about much more, we’ve got Mayor de Blasio joining us from the Blue Room inside City Hall for our weekly interview. Good evening, Mr. Mayor.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good evening, Errol. How are you doing?

Louis: Just fine, thank you. To just go a little further with this CCRB finding, the Civilian Complaint Review Board has recommended charges and specifications, which is the highest level of discipline for the most serious allegations, against 37 officers, each of whom will face an administrative trial now, run by the CCRB’s prosecution unit. If found guilty they could face loss of vacation days, suspension, or even termination. I wanted to get your reaction, especially after all of the de-escalation training, your creation of disciplinary matrix, and so forth?

Mayor: Well, look, my first reaction is this proves that the accountability structures are working. We have done a lot to strengthen this Civilian Complaint Review Board over the last eight years, a number of reforms, especially some that we added in the last year. The idea is it is supposed to be a strong accountability mechanism, so I feel it’s a good example of them doing their job and doing it the right way. But in terms of your question of what does it say about our ongoing efforts? Well, I’m not happy to see even a single officer potentially having done the wrong thing, but it is a force of 35,000. I want to put that in perspective and I think de-escalation training has worked. I think implicit bias training has worked. But I think we have to do more. And I think we also have to hold supervisors accountable. That we’re sending a very clear message to officers, to comport themselves in a way that’s respectful of all communities, respectful of all people, including those who are protesting. And that needs to happen for there to be trust between officers and communities. And when individual officers don’t comport themselves the right way, it really hurts the relationship between police and community. Which means we have to double down on the training, on the supervision. But this accountability also sends a message, that if someone’s done the wrong thing, even if it’s a small number of officers in the scheme of things, there will be consequences.

Louis: Do you worry about whether this will have a chilling effect on protests and other forms of protected free speech?

Mayor: No, not based on everything we’ve seen historically in New York City and certainly over the last few years, I think it’s quite clear, notwithstanding the mistakes of a few officers, and I don’t take them lightly, but it’s quite clear that overwhelmingly what the NYPD does is respect the right to protest, whatever side you’re on ideologically. And we have to keep perfecting that. And there was a powerful report last year by Department of Investigation that talked about some of the things we needed to do differently and better. I agreed to the recommendations in that report, and we’ve implemented them. And certainly, the protests we’ve seen this year, we’ve seen many, many kinds of protests this year. And generally speaking, they’ve been handled the right way. So, I think protest is alive and well and living in New York City.

Louis: You know, well, misconduct issues aside, there are some veterans of the department who have expressed to me privately, amazement at how the department institutionally almost doesn’t seem to be able to handle disorderly demonstrations, the way they used to. You and I both have enough history to have seen very large, very rowdy demonstrations handled somewhat differently. I mean, I’m surprised when I see footage of, you know, supervisors, guys in white shirts like scuffling on the ground with protesters and so forth. It just suggests a kind of a loss of tactical knowledge about how to handle this. Because as you say, there are a lot of New Yorkers who are always going to be protesting.

Mayor: Yeah. And that’s part of who we are. We’re the ultimate open society. We are the ultimate expression of democracy. We are the ultimate focus of diversity. I think there’s always going to be a lot of moments where people come out and express themselves. But I would see it a little bit differently. I do hear your point loud and clear, and you make a good point that there’s some things that seem in the past to have been done very well. A lot of huge protests were handled very fluidly by the NYPD in the past. We’ve seen some things lately that I have concerns about. But I’ve also seen the opposite. There were things in the past where police, in some cases, some individuals were really rough on people. And it was considered normal. That’s – there’s a lot more accountability now. There’s a lot more sense of, that training matters, that there’s a supervision that’s really paying attention and things like that. I don’t think it’s – I think there were strengths and weaknesses in the past, strengths and weaknesses today. But I think what’s crucial now is to take this moment where we’ve got clear training about how to do it right. One of the things that the DOI report rightfully pointed out, the specialized units that are used to tactical situations, that should be very much of a last resort. Strategic Response Group, for example. The Community Affairs officers who are the best at communicating with folks, including in tense situations, should always be the first option. That’s something we’re doing much more consistently. That’s been very effective. So, there’s definitely work to be done. But I think overwhelmingly, you know, protest is being respected the right way, the vast majority of the time.

Louis: Well, let me switch subjects. The New York Times, Mr. Mayor, had a gripping story over the weekend about a now retired member of your security detail, Katrina Brownlee. And of course, back in the pre COVID days, we used to see her around here at NY1, she would do advanced security checks before you would arrive, back when we did stuff face to face. So, she was the victim of horrific domestic violence, shot multiple times by a boyfriend. He went to prison for a decade for that assault. But the thing that stood out for me is that she kept her past a secret from the City, from the NYPD, from you, I believe as well, because she thought it would make it harder to succeed in her career if people knew that she had been a victim. And it’s sort of troubling to hear that. I’m wondering what you would say to people in the NYPD or frankly, any other agency, who feel that having been victimized would be a career setback?

Mayor: Well, it can’t be and shouldn’t be, ever. I was so moved when she told me, and it’s recounted in the Times article. I mean, Katrina is a wonderful person. She did a fantastic job as a member of my detail. And I would say of all the members of my detail, one of the most energetic, one of the most sort of sharp and clear in what her mission was, someone full of life in every way. When she told me, like literally on her last day that she had been through this horrific experience, I was shocked. But I’ll tell you if she had told me on the first day, I wouldn’t have felt any different about her. I would have felt tremendous sympathy. But also, what I feel now, I’m so impressed at her strength and her sense of faith. She’s very much a woman of faith. And her belief that she could get to someplace better. And her desire to serve, to make sure this kind of thing didn’t happen to others. It is quite a beautiful, powerful story, even if it’s rooted in a horrible, horrible tragedy.

Louis: Because there might be other Katrina Brownlees out there, do you perhaps need an investigation or a directive from the top, telling people that this cannot be grounds for career setbacks or other kind of different treatment, if you discover that somebody has been through this?

Mayor: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, Errol. I think it obviously says that we need to communicate to everyone from the beginning of their employment, not just police, everywhere in the city, that if you’ve been done wrong, we need to see that with respect and compassion and support. It can never be seen as something that would be a negative to someone. So, I think this is a matter of very good one for our personnel team, Law Department, to think about how to communicate that the way we communicate a lot of other values to people. No, we should never see discrimination. In fact, I would say for all of us who heard her story, it made us respect her more and have even greater respect for her.

Louis: Okay. You and I have not spoken, you had a week off, I had a week off. We haven’t spoken since the DOI report about the use of your security detail. But I just had, really, one question. You’ve said many times, including this morning, that the DOI report into the use of your detail had multiple inaccuracies. Can you give us some examples?

Mayor: Yeah, sure. There’s all sorts of times where they allege somebody said something, somebody did something that I know for a fact didn’t happen. There’s a bunch of circumstantial evidence treated as definitive. I think there are situations where, for example, a text between officers was extrapolated into something that happened specifically, even when the final thing didn’t happen. I just, it’s stunning to me that instead of going to the head of the NYPD’s security apparatus overall, the Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism John Miller, who would have outlined why they did everything they did, why they instructed their officers, why they told me to do certain things from the beginning. Massive omission. I told everyone from DOI, to their face, at Gracie Mansion, here’s the person you must speak to, if you want to get the big picture of what happened and where all the instructions came from. And they chose not to interview him. So, I just think there’s numerous, not just inconsistencies and inaccuracies, but decisions that suggest to me that this was not an objective and fair report.

Louis: Do you think for future mayors to avoid this kind of disagreement, there perhaps should be written policies that people could follow or choose not to follow?

Mayor: Yeah, well, I think if there’s a written policy, people have to follow it, obviously. And I think it is a commendable idea. But I think it’s really important when an oversight entity is trying to judge someone’s actions, to start with, was there a policy? If there wasn’t then what was the governing reality? So, here there weren’t written policies. The governing reality came from decades of how the NYPD had provided security for mayors, in all sorts of situations, including international travel, national travel, political trips, you name it, family vacations. And the previous approach is what was being followed, with some actual revisions because of the age of terrorism and political violence that unfortunately we’re in. So, from the very beginning, DOI knew there wasn’t a written policy, and yet they’re suggesting that the policy wasn’t followed. Well, how — that just doesn’t make sense. If the conclusion is –

Louis: But the fact that nothing was written raises suspicion clearly in the minds of the DOI investigators. And frankly, I would share that skepticism, that it’s easier to say we were just following policy, oops, we made a mistake, but we carefully wrote absolutely nothing down, smashed our phones when asked about it, deleted our messages to avoid any kind of a paper trail. I mean, you know, that makes people think that perhaps people are trying to hide something rather than follow a policy?

Mayor: I understand what you’re saying, but I want to get back to the core point here. And by the way, on all those things, to me, those are allegations that I don’t know if they’re true because they’re in a report filled with inaccuracies, but I’ll go to the core point. How is security supposed to be provided for the leader of the nation’s largest city? The place, that’s the number one terror target in the country? A place where there’s tremendous roiling energy and activity, every single day? And for that person’s family? What’s right to do? And it seems to me, if you look at, for generations now, mayor after mayor, there has been a pretty clear tradition, pretty clear ground rules. What I’m saying is if we’ve come to a point, we say, let’s codify all this. That’s a 100 percent fair. Then codify it and hold everyone responsible thereafter for a codified approach. But nowhere until this moment, has there been any effort in the City Council, mayoralty, any place else, to codify it. So, what I did was follow everything I’d ever known, even going back, you know, I served four years with Mayor Dinkins. And I observed everything that was done on his security detail. I believed in my heart, I was doing everything the way it was supposed to be done, the proper and ethical way. And of course, I was concerned for the safety of my family in an environment that unfortunately has gotten a lot worse since Mayor Dinkins had been in office. But it’s just, let’s acknowledge, that’s where things were. The question was given where things really were, did people comport themselves properly? I believe the answer, absolutely, is yes.

Louis: I think a future mayor, perhaps the next one, will in fact codified these so that these questions won’t come up again. Stand by, Mr. Mayor. We’re going to take a short break. We’ll be back with Mayor de Blasio in a minute. Stay with us.

[…]

Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall and my weekly conversation with the Mayor who joins us from the Blue Room. Mr. Mayor, I wanted to ask you about the current situation with so-called missing students. We’re talking about students who have not set foot in a classroom yet this year. At least one news outlet, the New York Post, reported that as many as 150,000 kids may have left the system. What is the status right now?

Mayor: Don’t believe what you read in the New York Post will be my first statement. There’s nothing like that at all. The fact is based on what we know and we’re going to be providing a very detailed accounting soon, because this is the time of year where we actually finally get stable numbers in our school system, every year, pre-pandemic, true as well. Overwhelmingly we’ve seen kids come to school. There are still some kids, some families that are being communicated with to confirm which school they’re going to, there’s still some gray in that, but no, we – what we’ve seen is the vision that we had, that Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter and I said, let’s get everyone back to school, we can keep it safe, we’re done with remote learning. It’s not as good as in-person education. Guess what? Everyone has come back. Very few kids outstanding at this point, very safe environment, all our teachers vaccinated. I feel great about it. So, we’ll have a fuller accounting quite soon, but that report was absolutely off base.

Louis: But if you’re tracking attendance daily, which I assume the Department of Education is, why not just tell us how many people came today, yesterday, the week before, and so forth?

Mayor: Because it’s a very fluid situation in the first weeks of the school year, and again, that was true for years and years before the pandemic. And, you know, there’s this really interesting question, Errol, do you give partial information? It’s almost like – you and I are both political junkies. Do you weigh too much the initial returns on election night? Well, I think you’d say smartly, you know, be careful when only five percent or ten percent of the vote is in, it may not be indicative. We could give information partially as we begin a school year, we know it will be unrepresentative of the larger reality, and unfortunately, too oftentimes, not fully considered when it’s talked about. We want to do the smart thing and make sure we know exactly what the numbers are, exactly how each child and family has chosen each school, and then we’ll show the whole picture. It’s not going anywhere after that point. You can analyze it all you want, and people can raise whatever they want to raise, but what we’re seeing overwhelmingly – look, there’s demographic ups and downs in schools year after year. Meaning there’s times in history where school population goes up for a while, where it goes down for a while. Basically, we’re in the same ballpark, you know, the million or so kids consistently in New York City public schools. And we’re finding people came back, you know, there was so much fear, everyone’s leaving New York because of the pandemic. Well, people have been coming back, new people have been coming in, and the census showed our population actually went up compared to ten years ago to 8.8 million. So, I think you should expect overwhelmingly stability.

Louis: Okay. I mean the newspaper reported that there was an internal memo suggesting that DOE officials would be making site visits to schools where enrollment has dropped by 20 percent or more. Does that memo not exist? Are those visits not happening?

Mayor: I don’t know about the memo and, you know, it’s a massive organization. So, I find this also another area where a confusion reigns, where you take a single memo from a single person, then anyone tries to determine that that is the larger truth. There may be some individual schools where the numbers suggested that it was worth doing more effort to reach out to those kids and those families and make sure that they were aware of what was going on with their school, or if they had moved to another school or wanted to go to another school. There may have been places where it was important to do additional follow-up, and of course, with COVID, there’s been deep questions that some families have had. But the overwhelming – I mean, we’ve all seen the reality. We’ve seen our schools full. I mean I can tell as a public servant — you can tell when something’s wrong. I’m not seeing it, I’m not hearing from parents, I’m not hearing from elected officials, I’m not seeing reports of vast numbers of kids staying home. In fact, people are saying our schools are very full again. But if there’s specific places where there’s still some parents who need some answers, we’ll do that.

Louis: Okay, very good. Let me move on. We can talk a little bit of politics in our last few minutes. Tomorrow, I will be hosting a debate for the general election for public advocate. As a former occupant of the office yourself, one of the five living public advocates who have held that job, what should voters be looking for in this particular office?

Mayor: Really great question. One, that person, by the way, has to take over for mayor, God forbid the mayor is unable to serve or passes away, advocate takes over for 60 days initially, but still, that’s a big deal, especially at this moment in history. Two, the advocate has to be able to call out problems in the city that need resolution, but three, has to do it in a way that’s really solution oriented. It’s very easy, of course, to criticize. You got to mix the criticism and the research and, you know, solid critique, solid evidence with realistic solutions. I think that’s what people should be looking for.

Louis: Okay, let me switch to a different political question. The State Chairman of the Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, is under criticism tonight because of comments that he made to our partners upstate for Spectrum News, where he compared withholding support for India Walton, who as you probably know, is the Democratic nominee for mayor in Buffalo. He, sort of, analogized it to declining to support David Duke, the white supremacist and former KKK leader. Jacobs himself put out a statement saying, ‘I’m being misinterpreted here, I used a poor analogy,’ and so forth. I guess what’s your take on that and are you supporting anybody in that race?

Mayor: Let me make sure I understood. You’re saying he compared –

Louis: He said, I don’t – I, as State Chairman and no Democrat needs to automatically assume that they have to support the nominee, India Walton, because what would happen if we have a situation like they once had in Louisiana where a completely unacceptable candidate, like David Duke – he said, what if David Duke moved to New York, got on the ballot, and became the nominee? I wouldn’t support him either.

Mayor: Wow.

Louis: He kind of has tried to walk that back a little bit, but –

Mayor: Yeah, he sure damn well better. I know Jay a long time, I really like and respect him. I’m appalled to hear what you’re telling me. I’m hearing it for the first time from you. That’s a horrible and inappropriate comparison. It’s particularly troubling to me because of who India Walton is. I mean, she’s someone who had a very tough life, dealt with many of the problems of our society, sexism, racism, economic exclusion, and fought her way through, you know, helped working people as a union organizer, and she rightfully won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Buffalo. And if somehow Jay is comparing the DSA, the Democratic Socialists, to the KKK, that’s absolutely appalling and inappropriate. You know what, there’s a lot of things I think the DSA gets right, there’s some things that they get wrong, but she won that primary fair and square, and she’s obviously a Democrat and Democrats should support her. I don’t know what’s mysterious about that.

Louis: Are you supporting her?

Mayor: I have not been involved in that race, but if she’s the Democrat nominee I certainly would.

Louis: Okay. We’ll leave it right there for now. Thanks very much, Mr. Mayor. We’ll see you next Monday.

Mayor: Take care, Errol.

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