US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

“Cops across the country are mad,” Lee Habeeb wrote Monday for the National Review Online. “Mad as hell.” The evidence is everywhere, but nowhere more notably than the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos, murdered along with his partner on Dec. 20. After the killing, former New York Governor George Pataki said that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder were to blame for their “anti-cop rhetoric.” At the funeral, hundreds of officers turned their backs to de Blasio in protest.

Placing blame squarely on de Blasio, Holder, and President Barack Obama, Habeeb wrote that until the two officers were murdered, “there was not a word of understanding for the tough situations cops respond to every day. Not a word about the risks they take with their lives, particularly those who work on the streets of our most dangerous neighborhoods.” A shocking oversight, and one that understandably would anger police.

Except not a word of it is true.

Here’s Obama, on Nov. 24 in response to the grand jury decision in Ferguson: “Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.”

Here’s Holder, on Dec. 3 in an announcement about the federal investigation into Eric Garner’s death: “As the brother of a retired police officer, I know in a personal way about the bravery of the men and women in uniform who put their lives at risk every day to protect public safety. The vast majority of our law enforcement officers perform their duties honorably and are committed to respecting their fellow citizens civil rights as they carry out their very challenging work.”

Habeeb was one of a slew of conservative commentators trotting out the charge of anti-police rhetoric. (A prime example: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani blamed Obama for "propaganda" that spurred people to “hate the police.”) Though it has been debunked several times in the last few weeks, that false narrative persists because it is politically useful. It transforms discussions of police reform into anti-police diatribes. You don’t object to police brutality, it says. You hate the police.

Freighting up their arguments with falsehoods and floating them out into the world does nothing but muddy the waters of a problem politicians and policymakers have been wrestling with for years. Police officers play a critical role in enforcing laws and maintaining order. Yet well into the 1950s and 1960s many police departments functioned as criminal enterprises – no other phrase could describe the departments in the Deep South that enforced the white racial code there.

Since the 1960s, American city governments have struggled to improve community-police relations, particularly by implementing reforms — curtailing police brutality, eliminating racial inequities, holding officers accountable for civil and criminal infractions — in ways that are acceptable to both the community and the departments. But reform has often opened deep rifts between police and politicians.

Take the case of Philadelphia. In October 1980, Philadelphia police officers attending the funeral of Officer Garrett Farrell turned their backs to Mayor William Green and Police Commissioner Morton Solomon. Their protest, repeated this weekend in New York City with de Blasio, stemmed not only from the department’s new use-of-force guidelines, which officers blamed for Officer Farrell’s death, but the broader struggle between the new mayor and the police over departmental reform.

When Green came into office he vowed to clean up the department. Just a few years earlier, the Philadelphia Inquirer had won a Pulitzer Prize for its series on police brutality in the city, and the Justice Department had filed suit against the police department for civil rights violations. Stripping away perks and enforcing discipline, Green became the target of a great deal of police enmity during his four years in office. But his reforms also modernized the city’s police department, which at the time was the only one of the country’s fifteen largest cities without use-of-deadly-force guidelines.

Mayor de Blasio is in much the same position as Green was thirty-five years ago. He came into office with an eye on police reform: reducing stop-and-frisk, retraining officers in use-of-force and experimenting with body cameras. This has led to friction with the police department because reform necessarily relies on a criticism of the status quo. But criticizing police procedures is not the same as criticizing the police, and pushing a false narrative of “anti-cop rhetoric” only makes it harder to institute the reforms which, as events in the last several months have shown, police departments across the country so clearly need.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report