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The NYPD Is Using Fear as a Weapon in the "War on Cops" Crackdown

Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images

The New York Post's Christmas edition carried a red, but hardly festive banner on its front page: "War on Cops." The hyperbole aptly captures the perspective of the New York Police Department, which indeed has behaved like it's at war since officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in their patrol car last week. Patrick Lynch, the head of the city's largest police union, declared that there's "blood on many hands," specifically "those who incited violence under the guise of protests" and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Another police union has advised its members to remain armed even when they're off duty and to keep a low profile on the street and online.

Never mind that the dead killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, had a long history of mental illness and had shot his ex-girlfriend in Maryland before traveling up to NYC. The only relevant fact, it seems, is that Brinsley had forecast his actions by posting a photo of a pistol on Instagram with the phrase "They Take 1 Of Ours… Let's Take 2 of Theirs" and hashtag references to Eric Garner and Michael Brown. That's all the evidence that Lynch, the Post, and their ilk need that there's a war on cops—and that police must respond in kind.

The week after Ramos and Liu's deaths has seen more than 40 threats against the NYPD, with seven arrests in connections with those threats, the department's media office said Friday. One of those arrested, Devon Coley, an 18-year-old facing separate assault and weapons charges, posted on Facebook a photo—possibly from a movie—of a man firing a pistol into the driver's side of a police car. He wrote "Nextt73," an apparent reference to his local police precinct in Brooklyn, and punctuated it with emojis of a cop with a pistol by his head.

Under normal circumstances, that vague, semipublic comment might be reason for police to contact Coley for a conversation. But in these "blood on the hands" times, the NYPD is making it known that it will treat all threats as deadly serious. For his Facebook post, Coley faces up to seven years in prison. Brooklyn's district attorney, Ken Thompson, told the Post that his request for $250,000 bail in the case fit the charge of making terroristic threats. (New York statute defines it as an actual threat that inspires "a reasonable expectation or fear" that a specified crime will happen.) While acknowledging that what Coley did was “stupid” and an “incredible inflammatory thing to do right now,” Circuit Judge Laura Johnson concluded, “I think that for me to set bail because of the current climate—it would be a misuse of bail.”

NYPD's strong reaction does seem justified in at least one case: An informant with ties to Black Guerilla Family gang overheard talk of shooting up the stations, sources told DNAinfo, prompting two precincts to post heavily armed officers outside. But actual arrests have made for a less-than-ominous roundup. A Queens man was overheard talking on his phone about killing police; after receiving a tip, police searched his place and found guns, brass knuckles, and pot paraphernalia. A Manhattan man called Ramos and Liu's old precinct in the middle of the night and claimed to be Brinsley, saying he'd like to kill more cops. Two men were arrested for making false reports of other people making threats. One Staten Island teenager wrote "kill the cops" on Facebook. And Jose Maldonado, 26, posted the same shooting photo Coley did, musing he "might just go out and kill two cops myself!!!" He surrendered to police and apologized, saying he was drunk. That didn't save him from a trip to Riker's after being arraigned on charges of terroristic threatening.

The NYPD understandably takes even drunken rants seriously, given Brinsley's Instagram message. But throwing terroristic-threat charges at Facebook users who walk themselves into police stations when police contact them, as both Coley and Maldonado did, cheapens the very notion of terror. It might also make their jobs a whole lot harder in the coming weeks and months.

A basic principle of good policing holds that officers in the field should seek to de-escalate, rather than intensify, tension and use of force. (Police escalation of force was instrumental in many if not all the recent deaths that have sparked nationwide protests.) Yet thousands of New York's finest created a political spectacle at Ramos' funeral Saturday by turning their backs on the mayor during his eulogy. And while it's Lynch's job to antagonize the sitting mayor when his union is in protracted contract negotiations with the city, it's also his job to represent police to the city. Cranking up the heat, especially at funerals, does police no favors. Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has started pointing fingers, saying on the "Today" show that the "targeting of these two police officers was a direct spinoff of this issue of these demonstrations."

Connecting peaceful demonstrators to a cop-killer has had its presumably intended effect. The New York Times on Friday reported that the killing of Ramos and Liu has opened rifts in the protest movement in New York. "It is wrong to connect the isolated act of one man who killed NYPD officers to a nonviolent mass movement," Joo-Hyun Kang, the executive director of Communities United for Police Reform, told the paper. But conflating a call to end police violence with violence against police, contradictorily or not, has worked in City Hall. The Times quoted Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who earlier in December exhorted her colleagues to repeat "I can't breathe" in memory of Garner's last words, now calling "to end hateful and divisive rhetoric which seeks to demonize officers and their work."

At the protests I saw two weeks ago, no one was demonizing officers' work: The overwhelming mass of people were calling for police simply to do their jobs better, to avoid unnecessary deaths. The very inspiration for these protests was police overreaction, and yet here we are, charging nitwits with terroristic threats. Maybe this is how the NYPD de-escalates situations after all: By corralling elected officials and prosecutors, and letting the city know fear will now be the default. New York needs its cops to keep cooler heads. "Stop resisting" may be practical advice during an arrest, but it makes for contemptible politics.