Police commissioner Bill Bratton took to AM radio on Friday to decry what he described as a "gang-up-on-the-police mentality" that he said is prevalent today, especially in the media and among activists. The press-savvy top cop used last week's police shooting of suspected serial hammer attacker David Baril as an example of the rush to judgement his public relations team is fighting.
"Immediately they started Twittering, you know, 'Cops kill another black man again,'" Bratton said during the interview with 970 AM's John Gambling. "We are dealing with that where anybody with a thumb can try to rule the airwaves. And it takes a lot of work to push back. That's why we have a very active social media, why we were very quick to put out the video."
The department was very quick to put out the video, and the particulars of how that happened are an illuminating example of how the Police Department disseminates information—and doesn't. The shooting happened just after 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and over the next few hours officers answering the phones at DCPI, the Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, would only give out the most basic details: that police had shot someone at W. 37th Street and Eighth Avenue, basically. They wouldn't confirm the condition of the man shot or that he was suspected of the series of hammer attacks earlier in the week. Meanwhile, witness reports proliferated on social media, along with the commentary of people who weren't there, which no doubt included people jumping to conclusions, both that the shooting was justified and that it wasn't. Then, at 1:30 p.m., DCPI sent a media advisory announcing Bratton would discuss the shooting outside the Midtown South station house at 2:45 p.m.
There, police presented a large blowup of Baril's hammer and a surveillance video which shows him attacking an officer on a crowded street, then being gunned down, all in a matter of seconds. Executive editor Jen Chung attended, and she had questions, such as why Baril was handcuffed after he was shot twice, and because photos showed police standing around him post-shooting, what the protocol is for officers to administer first aid. But Bratton, having said his piece, was whisked away by handlers and, when Jen put those questions to Det. Michael DeBonis, he answered, "Send us an email."
Sending an email to the general DCPI email, as most reporters know, can be an exercise in futility, and is 1/1,000th as useful as putting a question directly to the police commissioner or one of his high-ranking spokespeople. David Baril, who reportedly has a history of schizophrenia and is suspected of serial hammer attacks on random people, is not overwhelmingly sympathetic as a victim, and no protests have been organized around his death that I am aware of. But that doesn't mean it's not legitimate to question whether he should have been shot, or how police chose to handcuff him as he lay prone and bleeding but didn't tend to his health. I have reached out to DCPI about this again and will update the story if I hear back.
In his softball radio interview, though, Bratton doesn't have to answer questions like these. Gambling refers to Baril as "the crazy with the hammer that was taken off the streets this week" and doesn't challenge Bratton when he says that police racism, brutality, and corruption are "no longer systemic," though there are plenty of researchers and everyday New Yorkers who would argue otherwise. As he often does in public statements, Bratton in this interview alternated between dismissing those who predict policy changes would precipitate a dramatic slide into the Bad Old Days, and invoking that argument himself.
"We have our issues, but we cannot lose sight of it," he said, "because absent the police we would have anarchy."
Also in the interview, Bratton criticized the police body cameras he once said were "too important to wait" for, saying now that mistrust of police could lead juries to be suspicious when video is absent in a criminal case. Therefore, the cameras "aren't the cure-all they're represented to be." Nobody could accuse Bratton of being biased against spin.