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De Blasio facing a critical 'moment' with NYPD tensions, experts say

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a news conference regarding two police officers who were killed on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2014. Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is facing a critical crossroads that could determine the success of his tenure, experts said Monday.

De Blasio is trying to maintain calm as tensions have gripped the city. Two weeks of protests against police procedures and perceived bias in the criminal justice system preceded the killings of two police officers in Brooklyn and have put the public and rank-and-file officers on edge. As de Blasio tries to quell the situation, he must demonstrate that public safety is not at risk -- a cornerstone of city governance and economic success.

It's the type of crisis that can make or break politicians.

"It's his moment," Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said of de Blasio. "He's got to be tough and he's got to be kind at the same time. It's not easy. He's got to be compassionate. He's got to be in charge and hope the city follows him."

No New York mayor has had a successful term without good police relations, said veteran political consultant George Arzt, noting that poor police relations dogged the tenures of former mayors David Dinkins and John Lindsay. Dinkins was dogged by the perception that crime was out of control, which helped doom his re-election and propel Rudy Giuliani into office. Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio's predecessor, fought with the cops over contracts but generally was perceived as supporting them.

"This is an extremely critical moment for the mayor," Arzt said, adding the mayor must find "common ground" with police.

Gerald Benjamin, a SUNY New Paltz professor and longtime political observer, said de Blasio -- who won in 2013 on a liberal platform that included opposition to the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactics -- has a delicate balancing task.

De Blasio "has walked the walk when it comes to diversity and tolerance," Benjamin said, but the mayor must not do anything that jeopardizes the public perception that New York has grown steadily safer over the past two decades.

"His natural constituency puts him in a real box," Benjamin said. "To the degree he appears to be pro-police, he alienates his natural constituency. But a mayor must be pro-police. At the same time, he must have the trust of the minority community."

De Blasio, a first-term Democrat, sought Monday to turn down the temperature on events in the city that began when a grand jury declined to indict a police officer in the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. The grand jury's action -- on the heels of a similar grand jury decision in the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri -- spurred widespread protests about the criminal justice system.

Then came the slayings of two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, as they sat in their patrol car Saturday by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a man with a history of mental illness. Police Commissioner William Bratton, appearing on NBC's "Today" show, said the killings were a "direct spinoff" of the protests.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch has pointed fingers and said the "blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor."

De Blasio has called the killings an attack "on our values" and an "attack on every single New Yorker." He called on protesters Monday to suspend demonstrations until after the funerals of Liu and Ramos.

"He absolutely did the right thing in asking the protesters to stop," Arzt said.

Former Gov. David A. Paterson said de Blasio needs to develop his "back channels" relationship with Lynch and police so they can have a personal rapport to advance issues.

"We all make our mistakes, but what he can do now is to recognize that and start back-channeling with these folks," Paterson said. "When police turned their backs on him, all he can do now is get upset. But with a different relationship, he could say, 'If you are going to humiliate me in public, you can count on no cooperation from me in the future.' . . . He can turn this situation around if he just embraces that point."

Sheinkopf said it's too early to pass judgment on the mayor's handling of the crisis, but he said de Blasio needs to tackle it in a way that doesn't come off as political.

"These tragedies, if they take on a political tone, hurt everybody," Sheinkopf said. "Right now, the rhetoric is not helpful to anybody. The police union looks bad. Everybody looks bad."

He said de Blasio, to manage the crisis successfully, needs to become the "emotional savior of the city."

With Michael Gormley

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