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Mayors Wrestle With How To Support Police And Grieving Residents

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're reporting this morning on the tension between a police department and a mayor. The relationship that's been making headlines is in New York City. That's where two police officers were ambushed and killed in their squad car in Brooklyn over the weekend. The head of a police union in New York says Mayor Bill de Blasio now has, quote, "blood on his hands." The argument is that the mayor didn't support the police in a time of rising public anger. It is a tension that has mayors in other cities empathizing, as David Molpus of member station WCPN in Cleveland reports.

DAVID MOLPUS, BYLINE: Unlike New York, police in Cleveland are generally satisfied with the way their mayor handled himself after a rookie officer shot and killed a 12-year-old African-American on November 22. Responding to a 911 call, police rolled up fast and almost immediately opened fire on Tamir Rice as he reached in his pants for what turned out to be a plastic pistol that only shoots BBs. Jackson, an African-American, grew up and still lives in a tough part of Cleveland. The street cred is part of what's made him a popular mayor. He says this shooting is the worst thing that's happened during his eight-year administration.

FRANK JACKSON: I do not want children to die at the hand of police officers. But at the same time, I don't want a policeman killed on the street because he was hesitating because he didn't know if he was going to be sued or fired. So I don't want that either.

MOLPUS: But that's exactly the dilemma mayors face here and elsewhere - how to keep their city safe and make both police and grieved residents feel supported. While Jackson talks about reviewing procedures, some community leaders, even Jackson allies, say he's taken too long to fix a broken police department. They want top police brass fired. Here are Pastors Jawanza Colvin and R.A. Vernon addressing the mayor at a community meeting last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAWANZA COLVIN: Policies and procedures can't resurrect a dead body.

R.A. VERNON: Can you fire somebody? Fire somebody.

MOLPUS: Have the police become a political football?

STEVE LOOMIS: Absolutely.

MOLPUS: That's Steve Loomis, the incoming president of the Cleveland Patrolman's Association.

LOOMIS: The only thing that we can do differently is not fire until fired upon. There's groups out there that actually advocate for that, and I'm telling you as a police officer, that will never happen. We are not going to take a bullet and let someone take a shot at us before we can return fire.

PETER MOSKOS: That's a political issue as much as it's a police issue.

MOLPUS: That's Peter Moskos, a former policeman who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He says mayors everywhere walk a tightrope between police and citizen outrage. He says the public needs to get more realistic about how the police work. And police need to be less tone deaf to how their actions can inflame the public. The fundamental challenge for mayors, Moskos says, is a willingness to make big changes when police shootings aren't warranted.

MOSKOS: And that's tough, but that's about changing the system. It's not just about punishing one officer.

MOLPUS: For his part, Jackson isn't there yet. He insists there's no systematic failure by the Cleveland Police Department even though a Justice Department report issued this month found a pattern of excessive use of force and lack of accountability. Jackson says he'll take whatever corrective action is necessary after making his own review. Meanwhile police here are taking a wait-and-see approach. As one police detective says, at least the mayor didn't throw us under the bus. For NPR News, I'm David Molpus in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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