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The Banks Mess

November 3, 2014

Whether he quit out of pique or principle, the reaction to the abrupt retirement of Chief of Department Phil Banks, the NYPD’s highest-ranking black officer, underscores the role of race within the department and across the city today.

Six weeks ago, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton forced the retirement of First Deputy Rafael Pineiro, the department’s highest ranking Hispanic officer, creating a firestorm among Hispanic police groups, who feel their numbers are not reflected at the top of the department. Now, following Banks’s unexpected departure after his so-called promotion to First Deputy, the perception is growing that Bratton has appeared slow to promote “minority” or non-white officers to positions of authority.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio has lost the confidence of much of the police department with his embrace of the race-baiting Al Sharpton and of his former spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger, now chief of staff to de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray. Following Banks’s sudden retirement, the perception is growing that the mayor is unwilling or unable to effect the cultural change in the NYPD that he had promised and that Banks personified.

At the same time, an undercurrent of the city’s racial disharmony is reflected in the reaction of elected officials to Banks’s departure. Black officials across the city — from Public Advocate Letitia James to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson — were quick to lament it. No white official has been quoted in the media, expressing any such sentiments.

Perhaps this was all to be expected when de Blasio began as mayor by forcing Bratton to retain Banks and Pineiro, both of whom had been placed in their positons by Bratton’s predecessor and arch-rival, Ray Kelly.

Perhaps, too, this was all to be expected when Bratton, seemingly desperate to return to head the department, accepted de Blasio’s terms as a price for his return.

Or perhaps the evil genius is Kelly who, in the last of his 12 years as commissioner, promoted Banks to Chief of Department as a poison pill — a ticking time bomb that would inevitably go off in the next administration.

As Chief of Department, the NYPD’s highest ranking uniformed officer, Banks was regarded as a proponent of what is known as “community policing.” For example, he supervised a pilot program in a Brooklyn precinct where rookies walked their beats with local residents who introduced them to community members.

“He saw no contradiction between building strong ties to the community and being a strong crime-fighter,” said a former ranking black officer. “But because he was African-American there was a false perception that he was soft on crime.”

In a controversial decision earlier this year that went unreported by the mainstream media, Banks showed kindness and compassion that disturbed department traditionalists. A black, female probationary cop turned up drunk and belligerent at the 73rd precinct in Brooklyn, pulled down her pants, urinated on the floor, then passed out. Ordinarily, such behavior would merit summary dismissal. But at a top-level hearing, Banks argued that the officer was young and deserved a second chance. Pineiro took the standard department line and pushed to fire her. For reasons never explained, Bratton sided with Banks.

While de Blasio may have felt comfortable with Banks’s policing philosophy, the mayor had no choice but to support Bratton after Bratton refused to give Banks the authority as First Deputy that Banks had demanded. How long that support will continue is anyone’s guess.

Both de Blasio and Bratton issued public statements, praising Banks for his 28 years of service but neither addressed the underlying issues that led to his departure: that, under the guise of a promotion, he felt he was marginalized, as Pineiro and other previous First Deputies had been under Kelly.

Specifically, Banks had demanded that his successor as Chief of Department, James O’Neill — a white chief and a Bratton favorite since their days at the Transit Bureau 25 years before — report to him.

Banks was sensitive to the fact that, during Bratton’s first tour as commissioner in 1994, he had appointed as his initial First Deputy David Scott, a gentlemanly black chief, to whom Bratton gave virtually no authority. A year later, Bratton replaced Scott with John Timoney, a white officer who, like Banks, had been Bratton’s Chief of Department. Bratton then issued an interim order, saying that Timoney’s successor, Louis Anemone, would now report to Timoney as First Dep.

In short, Banks, who could not be reached for comment, wanted Bratton to view him as a Timoney, not a Scott.

Still, there is precedent within the NYPD for either role. Traditionally, the job has been as wide or as narrow as the police commissioner defines it.

When Lee Brown became police commissioner under David Dinkins in 1989 he appointed Kelly First Deputy. The Chief of Department, Robert Johnston, insisted he, Johnston, report directly to Brown, keeping Kelly out of the department’s operation role. When Kelly was questioned by Gov. Mario Cuomo’s commission about the department’s slow response to the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Kelly pronounced himself “out of the loop.”

And, despite its glorified sounding title, the job of First Deputy has not been a stepping stone to the police commissioner. Rather, it is a dead end job. Other than Kelly, who succeeded Brown as police commissioner in 1992, no First Deputy has ever become police commissioner in modern times. Kelly himself lasted only 14 months before Dinkins was defeated by Rudy Giuliani in 1993. He waited eight years before he returned for a second tour.

By taking the job as First Deputy, however, Banks was seen as the heir apparent to Bratton. He had support at City Hall — in particular from McCray — that Bratton seems to lack.

In addition, there is a sense among law enforcement folk that Bratton will not remain more than another year. In part this is because the city power elite, whom Bratton seeks to befriend, despise de Blasio and fear his policies.

Within the department Banks’s decision to retire was derided as hasty, ill-conceived and even disloyal. As a former First Deputy who asked for anonymity put it, “You wait your turn. You accept your fate and you serve.”

On the other hand, given the topsy-turvy state of racial politics in the de Blasio administration, Banks’s abrupt departure might yet make him attractive as Bratton’s successor.

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