New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference Friday afternoon to address the death of a 43-year-old grandfather named Eric Garner, who died while being taken into custody on Thursday by NYPD officers who were investigating the sale of untaxed cigarettes.
Flanked by his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, de Blasio repeatedly vowed there would be a “full, thorough, transparent investigation of this incident,” which was captured in what de Blasio described as a “troubling” smartphone video that showed seven officers subduing Garner as he shouted “I can’t breathe.”
“It was very troubling. I watched it the same way a family member would watch it and it was very sad to watch, but that being said, we can’t pass ultimate judgement based on one video,” de Blasio said.
The case has added significance for de Blasio who was elected last November with reforming the NYPD as a central element of his platform.
“He won the primary because of his focus on reforming police practices in New York City, so this is central to his brand,” a former de Blasio aide told Business Insider shortly before the press conference. “If he can’t handle this, and if he can’t show that the NYPD is changing under his administration, then it calls into question, not only his effectiveness, but also the rationale for electing him in the first place.”
At his press conference, de Blasio said Garner’s death was not an indication the police reforms he promised are not underway.
“Commissioner Bratton and I are moving very consistently and energetically to create a series of reforms. The effect of those reforms is being felt on the ground,” said de Blasio. “This incident is a tragedy. There will be a very thorough investigation. But when you look at what’s happening all over the city, it’s safe to say that real progress is being made.”
City Councilman Jumaane Williams has been one of the most prominent advocates for police reform in New York. Prior to the press conference, Williams told Business Insider he wanted to see a forceful statement from de Blasio about Garner’s death.
“There needs to be, I believe, very strong words about the video itself,” Williams said. “Of course, they have to ask for a full investigation, but they should say something about the fact what they have seen is very troubling and that we can’t put up with the death of unarmed civilians.”
Garner was African-American and Williams noted New York has had a history of “the deaths of unarmed civilians … particularly with unarmed black and brown civilians.” He said activists would want to see “a quick investigation” and would look for de Blasio to promise “if it shows wrongdoing, the fullest extent of what should happen to that officer should happen.”
“They have to make clear that there will be accountability,” Williams said.
At the press conference, Bratton said two of the officers involved were assigned to desk duty pending the investigation going forward.
This test for de Blasio came on the same day he was set to embark on a nearly 10-day trip to Italy with his family. According to the aide, “going on a 10-day vacation right now is not the best idea” for de Blasio, given the situation with Garner’s death.
“Things like this will come up and I think there are a lot of issues in the city that people will want a present leader for. I think, 7 months into the job, people want somebody who is going to be there working and not off on a jaunt to Italy for 10 days,” said the former aide. “When you decide to run for mayor, you sign up for a 24/7 job. … this is something that Mayor de Blasio needs to come to terms with.”
Late Friday evening, Phil Walzack, the mayor’s press secretary, said in a statement that de Blasio would postpone the departure for his family trip until Saturday to “attend to city business.”
“Updates to the Mayor’s schedule will be provided as they become available,” Walzack said.
The former aide noted de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also “struggled with” criticism for the frequent trips he took to his home in Bermuda and other locales while in office. They noted de Blasio, a longtime opponent of Bloomberg, “was very critical” about the issue.
“There’s no doubt Mayor Bloomberg was hurt by being out of town and reach during the snowstorm a couple years ago and the Metro North crash in the fall,” the former aide said. “It played into a narrative about him that he was out of touch, that he would rather be on the golf course in Bermuda than on the scene of a train crash. … De Blasio being out of town and being out of reach can play into a narrative about him that he is not effective, not focused on the job 24/7, that he’s a little bit lazy.”
The former aide suggested de Blasio should have “learned from previous mayors’ mistakes.”
“It indicates some personality problems, which is that he’s very stubborn and he’s very set in his ways, frankly,” said the former aide. “He believes that, no matter what he’s doing, it’s the right thing. And if the press reports that what he’s decided to do is wrong, it’s the press that’s wrong. It’s never him.”
Williams was far more charitable about de Blasio’s decision to take the trip to Italy in spite of Garner’s death.
“There will never be a perfect time for a mayor of the city of New York to go on vacation, so you have to do the best you can,” Williams said, adding, “You have to allow people to take the opportunity to take a vacation. Everyone deserves that.”
This post has been updated at 6:15 p.m. ET to note the delay in de Blasio’s vacation departure.
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