NYC Deputy Mayor on 'Chokehold' Case: This Time Is Different

First deputy mayor: "We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again."

July 24, 2014, 4:09 PM

— -- It’s New York City’s ugliest roll call: Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Anthony Baez -- the litany of men of color injured and killed at the hands of New York City cops.

A week ago, yet another name -- Eric Garner -- was added to that list.

But with Bill de Blasio, a police critic and unabashed liberal, now sitting in the mayor’s office, it was supposed to be different. New York was supposed to be different.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, the man in charge of managing the current NYPD crisis insisted that this time around it is different.

“Things are very different,” said Anthony Shorris, the first deputy mayor. “Over the last six months, this administration has entirely changed the entire nature of police-community relations.”

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Sitting in the ornate Blue Room at City Hall, Shorris acknowledged that there is still a lot to do in eliminating the gulf that separates New York City’s minority communities from the NYPD. But in the first seven months of de Blasio’s term, Shorris said, the administration has started putting the city back together. More than anything, he said, that’s why there has been no unrest or violence in the wake of Garner’s death in NYPD custody last Thursday.

“It’s about building bridges between police and communities across New York,” Shorris said.

Unlike his predecessors, de Blasio and his top aides wasted no time in condemning the videotaped incident in which Garner was apparently choked by a cop as two plainclothes officers tried to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes.

“This was a tragedy and there’s no question that what happened to Eric Garner here was troubling to everybody,” Shorris said, echoing earlier comments by de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. “What we need to do is to honor Eric Garner’s memory. ... We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again and that’s the most significant action we can take.”

In the wake of Garner’s death, Bratton announced a sweeping program of retraining every one of New York’s 35,000 cops so they understand the proper way to use force and make arrests when suspects resist.

But the differences between de Blasio and his predecessors, Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, are also less obvious.

What hasn’t been advertised is the way de Blasio and Shorris have made the quiet plays behind the scenes at City Hall. Chief among those moves was bringing community leader the Rev. Al Sharpton into the mix.

Instead of waiting for Sharpton to go after City Hall, officials used their close ties to Sharpton to keep him calm and informed from the start, according to one official briefed on the administration’s efforts.

While the new administration’s approach has pleased some, cops and their supporters are not pleased with the note being struck at City Hall.

“Look, I agree it’s a tragedy, but you never want to jump to conclusions,” said retired NYPD Sgt. Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “No matter who’s in charge, the police department never wants someone to say something in public that could sway the investigation.”

And, as for Sharpton, Giacalone said police reaction is simple: “He should not be consulted on anything. Cops look at him as a self-appointed ambassador. He’s not an activist; he’s an opportunist.”

Nevertheless, worried that the Garner death could cripple the fledgling administration if handled badly, City Hall went into full crisis mode. A war room was established. Emergency updates began pouring in. Staffers were sent to see Garner’s family. The mayor got on the phone as did his top aides.

“The administration is marshaling its resources at every level to ensure that we are strengthening the relationship between community and police in New York City in all of our neighborhoods.” That was the talking point handed to de Blasio and senior staff, who kept repeating it.

Bottom line, Shorris said, what happened in the last week is new for New York City because City Hall recognized the passion on the street and in minority communities and channeled it.

“We need to understand what happened and make sure what happened never happens again,” Shorris said.

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