The Importance of Treating NYPD Officers as Individuals

On the outrageous murder of two cops and the faction trying to exploit their deaths for political leverage

At 28-years-old, Ismaaiyl Brinsley had been arrested 19 times and served 2 years in prison. On Saturday, in a crime spree that began when he shot an ex-girlfriend in Baltimore, he murdered two New York City policemen as they sat in their car in Brooklyn. “I’m putting wings on pigs today," he wrote in an anti-police Instagram post published prior to the killing. "They take 1 of ours... let’s take 2 of theirs.” An act of this kind would be totally unjustifiable and worthy of the strongest condemnation even if the victims were abusive police officers who were carefully targeted as payback for some past transgression. In this case, the killer's statement implies that all 34,500 uniformed NYPD officers are interchangeable members of an enemy group rather than distinct individuals whose lives matter. This species of bigoted groupthink is as unacceptable as any other.

Officer Wenjian Liu, 32, was a newlywed who married less than three months ago. His widow is reportedly inconsolable. The New York Times offers a brief bio:

Officer Liu, whose family comes from Taishan, in Guangdong Province, China, attended the College of Staten Island and Kingsborough Community College. He was an auxiliary officer before becoming a police officer in 2007. Bin Fin Liang, 56, said Officer Liu would drop by his restaurant supply shop on the way home from the Police Academy. Mr. Liang asked him why he wanted to be an officer. “I know that being a cop is dangerous but I must do it,” Officer Liu replied, his friend said. “If I don’t do it and you don’t do it, then who is going to do it?”

Officer Rafael Ramos, 40, had worked at the NYPD for three years. "While residents of his working-class neighborhood described the pride he took in being an officer, they remembered him more as the man who shoveled sidewalks after snowstorms, or who took his two boys to nearby Highland Park to play basketball, always with a smile on his face," The Times reported. "Some spoke of his love for the Mets. He bought ham-and-cheese sandwiches at the corner deli, made trips to the laundromat and talked to his boys in Spanish about basketball."

His son was 13 years old.

Early reports suggest that both police officers were well-liked in their communities, though their killings would be tragic and worthy of condemnation in any case. And they are, in fact, being condemned by nearly everyone commenting on the case, which is no surprise: Opposition to the murder of police officers is as close to a consensus belief as exists in American politics, culture and life.

The Sergeants Benevolent Association, a group that claims to represent "approximately 12,000 active and retired sergeants of the NYPD," would have us think otherwise. "The blood of 2 executed police officers is on the hands of Mayor de Blasio," the group declared in a statement that attempted to exploit these murders to advance their political agenda. In a similarly dishonorable statement, "the president of the city’s largest police union, Patrick Lynch, blamed Mr. de Blasio for the tragedy. The officers’ blood 'starts on the steps of City Hall,' he said, 'in the office of the mayor.'”

And Howard Safir, a former NYPD commissioner, wrote this in Time: "When Ismaaiyl Abdulah Brinsley brutally executed Officers Ramos and Liu he did so in an atmosphere of permissiveness and anti-police rhetoric unlike any that I have seen in 45 years in law enforcement. The rhetoric this time is not from the usual suspects, but from the Mayor of New York City, the Attorney General of the United States, and even the President. It emboldens criminals and sends a message that every encounter a black person has with a police officer is one to be feared."

Notably, none of these intellectually dishonest statements quote or link to any actual rhetoric spoken by Mayor de Blasio, Eric Holder, or President Obama. That is because none of them has uttered so much as a single word that even hints that violently attacking a police officer, let alone murdering one, would be justified. Suggesting that their words are responsible for this murder is discrediting. Even the weaker claim that their words "embolden criminals" is absurd, both as a matter of logic and as a statement made amid historically low crime rates.

With regard to the particular crime of killing police officers, "the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty—that is, killed with felonious intent by a suspected criminal—plummeted to 27 in 2013, its lowest level in decades." That is the Obama/Holder record on this issue. We needn't speculate about whether their rhetoric has proved dangerous for police. We know that it has not.

And insofar as there is anti-police sentiment in some U.S. subcultures right now, it has little to do with the top-down rhetoric of national political leaders and much to do with grassroots outrage at police killing unarmed people and the proliferation of videos showing police officers abusing their authority, often with impunity. That intense anger over such videos coincides with persistent rarity of politically motivated attacks on cops underscores Radley Balko's observation that "it's possible to both be appalled by senseless executions of cops and angry at unjustified killings by cops." Those positions are not in tension with one another. They are both consistent the with individualist premise that all lives are valuable, as well as the belief that both police and non-police should act lawfully and justly.

In a sensible post at Reason, Nick Gillespie addresses a whole range of attempts to assign responsibility for this killing to someone other than the perpetrator himself:

Just as Sarah Palin’s defense of gun rights has zero culpability in the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and Dallas’s right-wing “climate of hate” had nothing to do with Marxist-Leninist Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of JFK, it’s worth underscoring at every moment of what is already shaping up as a very ugly debate that the actual killer is the culprit here. As the New York Daily News and other outlets are reporting, the apparent shooter was not only violent and unhinged but had bragged via Instagram that he was “putting wings on pigs” and “putting pigs in a blanket.” The distance between such rantings and, even worse, the act of shooting policemen sitting in a patrol car, simply has no relation to legitimate and even impassioned criticism of the militarization of police and the protesting of specific acts of apparent injustice. To suggest otherwise is not simply disgraceful and cheapening to serious public discourse. It’s all too often the first refuge of people on the right and the left who are afraid to actually engage in any sort of meaningful debate.

Although I'm in almost complete agreement with that position, I'd add one caveat: While the taboo against violent attacks on police officers is shared by literally every pundit I've come across, literally every elected official who has spoken on this subject, and the overwhelming majority of people who've taken to the streets to protest the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there are, in fact, documented examples of a tiny minority rejecting that norm, including the folks who took up the chant, "What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!"

There's almost no chance that the chants in this unrepresentative protest motivated a killer from a different city to kill cops in New York. The protestors were nevertheless behaving in a disgusting manner and undermining a norm the importance of which has just been underscored by two murdered men and grieving families. An even more disturbing example of this phenomenon, given subsequent events, is the fact that when Brinsley, the cop killer, posted an image of a gun to Instagram with a note about killing police officers, several people "liked" the post. Perhaps they took him to be making a figurative rather than a literal statement, and it's possible some of his followers liked the image of the gun without reading his words. Still, it's disturbing that some seemed to approve of this callous, prejudicial threat of violence. And one can't help but wonder if Brinsley would've thought better of his subsequent actions had his social-media followers objected to his threat or expressed disapproval rather than vague encouragement.

I see nothing wrong with criticizing people who urged or expressed affinity for actual violence against police, even as the bulk of responsibility must belong to the murderer alone. But NYPD defenders are engaged in an attempt to discredit even criticism of police that is totally nonviolent. Theirs is an attempt to squelch legitimate political debate by irrationally associating it with the deeds of a suicidal murderer.

That is scurrilous behavior.

The context is the election of a mayor who is less sycophantic in his relationship to the NYPD than his predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Too many police officers are reacting to this duly elected city leader with petulant histrionics that veer uncomfortably close to disdain for civilian, democratic control.

As Doug Mataconis argues at Outside the Beltway, "the fact that the Mayor may have expressed some sympathy for the people who were protesting the Garner decision is neither outrageous nor inappropriate. For one thing, it’s worth noting that he is the Mayor of all the people in New York, not just the police officers, and that as the elected leader of the city it is his job, in part, to be responsive to the concerns of civilians who see what they think is an injustice being committed by the police department and the justice system. The argument that being willing to listen to those protesters makes any political leader responsible for the actions of a violent criminal thug who traveled some 200 miles for the express purpose of committing murder is nonsense that ought to be rejected out of hand."

Following an outrageous murder of two policemen who seem to have been good cops, it's emotionally understandable that most people nod along to statements about NYPD officers being "New York's Finest." There are a lot of good cops in New York City. There are, as well, a lot of bad cops in the force of 34,500. People who hate all police officers because some act badly are being prejudiced and irrational. It is also irrational to extol everyone who wears an NYPD uniform despite the fact that some of them abandon whistleblowing colleagues when they need backup, accost an innocent kid with racial slurs and physical threats, retaliate against a fellow officer who exposes systemic misbehavior by trying to have him involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or assault women with pepper spray for no reason. Unions that fight to keep even misbehaving officers from being fired bear some responsibility for the reputation that the NYPD has among its critics, as does every cop that observes misbehavior by colleagues but stays silent. Only by distinguishing among police officers—praising the ones who do their jobs honorably and capably, and disciplining or firing the ones who fall short—can the proposition that the profession is worthy of respect be rationally defended.

At the same time, even bad police officers have an inviolable right to life, and the ones who are murdered are often good cops and valuable parts of communities and families.

The murder of Officers Liu and Ramos is an outrage, a tragedy, and an illustration of why rhetoric urging violence against police officers is wrongheaded and inappropriate. It is also a kind of anti-police attack that is thankfully rare, and in no way diminishes the need for reforms like body cameras, the demilitarization of police departments, training and procedures that emphasize de-escalation and alternatives to deadly force, and employment contracts that prevent arbitrators from reinstating cops fired for incompetence. There are legitimate, albeit wrongheaded, arguments against those reforms, but police shouldn't succeed at short-circuiting the debate by exploiting these awful murders.

May the victims rest in peace.