Bill de Blasio’s Bad Bet

He thought a more diverse NYPD would support a liberal mayor. Here’s why it didn’t.

Police officers line-up to pay their respects at a memorial during a vigil for two New York City police officers at the location where they were killed.

Police officers line up to pay their respects at the site where two New York City police officers were killed, on Dec. 21, 2014, in New York City. Increased diversity in the police ranks doesn’t mean more support from the forces for a liberal mayor.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The New York Times reported this week that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was caught off guard by just how deep the animosity toward him had grown among the city’s police officers. Though he’d run on a platform of reforming the NYPD and putting an end to its stop-and-frisk policy, de Blasio had apparently arrived in office confident he would avoid any lasting discord with the rank and file. It wasn’t until police protests in the wake of the killing of two NYPD officers last month that the mayor realized he had meaningfully lost the support of the cops.

One reason for de Blasio’s optimism, according to the Times, was that he and his advisers were “convinced that the demographics of the rank and file were changing in his favor.” The mayor’s aides, the paper reported, believed the NYPD was “morphing into a multicultural force whose members increasingly shared the views of the diverse group of voters who elected him in a landslide in 2013.”

De Blasio had enjoyed overwhelming minority support in the mayoral election, winning 96 percent of the black vote and 87 percent of the Latino vote after a campaign that saw him make numerous visits to black churches, forge alliances with minority leaders, prominently feature his multiracial family in ads, and speak out against the effect of stop-and-frisk on the city’s young black men. The mayor and his aides seem to have assumed that a police department of unprecedented diversity would be friendlier to a proudly liberal mayor than it might have been in a previous era.

The logic makes sense: Why wouldn’t a mayor who is overwhelmingly popular with minorities also be popular with minority cops? And the demographic shifts that de Blasio and his aides were hanging their hopes on are real. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the percentage of sworn officers in the NYPD who were members of a racial minority jumped from 25.5 percent in 1990 to 34.7 percent in 2000. The trend continued in subsequent years: A study by Salomon Alcocer Guajardo, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, reported that the percentage of NYPD officers who were either black, Latino, Asian, or Native American had climbed to 47.9 percent by 2012. According to the NYPD’s own statistics, there have been more minorities than whites among patrolling officers since at least 2010.

The result of these trends—which are consistent with changes at other big-city police departments around the country, including Los Angeles’ and Chicago’s—is that the racial makeup of New York’s police force is getting close to that of the city’s overall population. This is progress that promises, at least in theory, to improve relations between police and minority communities. But does it also have the potential to make police departments more open to criticism from liberal politicians?

The de Blasio administration seems to have thought the answer was yes. But law enforcement experts say this is a naive way to think about police culture. The idea that race and ethnicity were going to overpower the loyalty that officers feel toward their department and thus translate into good will for the mayor, they argue, was nothing more than wishful thinking.

“[De Blasio] figured that the demographics were in his favor because it’s not all white cops anymore, I guess,” Joe Giacalone, a NYPD detective sergeant who retired in 2012, told me. “What it comes down to is that most cops are ‘blue’ before they’re anything else. That’s what he failed to take into consideration. He doesn’t understand the police culture, which is an us vs. them mentality.”

That isn’t to say, however, that the changing makeup of urban law enforcement agencies isn’t having an effect on the police culture Giacalone describes. In a 2006 paper titled “Not Your Father’s Police Department: Making Sense of the New Demographics of Law Enforcement,” Stanford Law School criminal law professor David Sklansky writes that “workforce diversity is at once the most dramatic and the least scrutinized major change that American policing has undergone over the past several decades.” Sklansky challenges the view that “police behavior is overwhelmingly determined by a homogeneous occupational subculture … marked by paranoia, insularity, and intolerance.” He says that was accurate decades ago, but is less so now. “In large part because of the demographic transformation of law enforcement,” Sklansky writes, “police officers are far less unified today and far less likely to have an ‘us-them’ view of civilians.”

New York City Police Academy cadets attend their graduation ceremony at the Barclays Center on July 2, 2013 in Brooklyn.
A new generation: New York City Police Academy cadets attend their graduation ceremony at the Barclays Center on July 2, 2013, in Brooklyn.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

I asked Sklansky to elaborate on the ways in which he believes the culture has shifted. He wrote via email:

When police forces diversify they become less monolithic places intellectually and culturally. The range of acceptable opinions within the department expands, as does the range of models for what it means to be a good police officer. Minority officers often form their own organizations, which can give voice to views different than the ones taken by the department or by the police union. Those organizations also can serve as a bridge to organizations outside the department interested in issues facing minority communities. There are also important one-on-one interactions: minority officers tend to broaden the perspective of the white officers they work with, particularly their partners. 

This might explain why the police protests against de Blasio have not been entirely monolithic—why only some officers elected to turn their backs to him at the funerals last month, while others stayed facing forward. Still, it seems clear that de Blasio miscalculated the extent to which the Police Department’s growing diversity would affect the stance that officers, and the unions that represent them, would take toward him. He also might have underestimated the power of police culture to shape the perspective of those who are immersed in it, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

“It was a bit of a rookie move on the part of the mayor to assume that the increased diversity is going to lead to quick changes in the outlook and mentality of police officers, and the way they go about their work,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University–Bloomington, who has studied the views and experiences of minority police officers.

Owusu-Bempah said he has interviewed black officers who had “very liberal” political views when they first entered the force that quickly gave way to clannishness. As part of the acculturation process—and the toll of regularly witnessing the results of people committing crimes—these officers came to feel suspicion toward the general public, and to see themselves and their fellow officers as being separate from the rest of society. 

The power of the cultural allegiance that emerges from such feelings is significant, Owusu-Bempah said, no matter how much department demographics evolve. “Even though the face of the officers has changed, they’re still operating within this world that is deeply conservative.” And insofar as demographic changes do matter, their impact will take a long time to reveal itself. 

“Say you’ve got a bucket of cold water, and these new diverse recruits are drops of warm water,” Owusu-Bempah said. It’s going to take a lot of warm drops to warm that bucket.”