NEW YORK -- Flanked by top NYPD brass, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday in the wake of a grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer over Eric Garner's death that police are being retrained to use less force "whenever possible."
De Blasio appeared at the city's police academy in Queens to underscore the importance of a force-wide retraining push unveiled by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton after Garner's July death. Roughly 22,000 officers will receive a three-day tutorial on "smart policing," including de-escalating situations that seem headed for violence.
"A lot of people, as I said yesterday, felt a lot of pain, felt a lot of frustration," de Blasio said. "My message to people is take that pain and frustration and work for change, the relationship between police and community has to change. I am fundamentally convinced it will change."
De Blasio pointed to that training, as well as moves to decrease the use of stop and frisk, end arrests for low-level marijuana possession cases and equip some officers with body-worn cameras, as examples of the change he has ushered in since taking office on Jan. 1.
But as both de Blasio and Bratton acknowledged, the ambitious NYPD reform agenda the mayor campaigned on has been frequently overtaken by events ranging from Garner's death in July to the shooting last month of an unarmed, innocent man, Akai Gurley, in a public housing stairwell by an apparently startled officer. Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, has further fueled protests over excessive force in New York City.
Underscoring the obstacles to change, the head of the city's largest police union went on the offensive against de Blasio over an alleged lack of support for Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Garner, and police in general.
Calling Pantaleo a "model" officer and "literally … an Eagle Scout," Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch referenced a press conference in which de Blasio expressed his sympathy for Garner's family. "“What police officers felt last night after that press conference is that they were thrown under the bus," Lynch said.
Pantaleo still faces possible internal discipline at the NYPD, where Bratton could choose to fire him should an internal tribunal find he violated departmental rules while choking Garner. A separate investigation by U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, the current nominee for U.S. Attorney General, could also result in federal civil rights charges.
De Blasio flatly rejected the criticism from Lynch, who is locked in battle with the city over police union contracts.
"I've now for this whole year talked about my immense respect for the police department," de Blasio said. "I think people in this city saw many die who shouldn't have died, it's as simple as that. I think it's important to speak to that reality, particularly when it's not an isolated reality."