NEW YORK — The mayor and police commissioner of New York City urged police academy graduates Wednesday to respect their constituents, say "hello" to people on the street and distance themselves from friends and relatives who make bad decisions.
The comments to 555 graduates of the Police Academy came as relations between police and communities remain strained in places across the country. The most recent case to grab national attention involved a Fort Worth police officer arresting a mother and her two daughters after the mother complained that a neighbor choked her 7-year-old son for alleged littering.
The most high-profile New York City case to enter the national spotlight involved the July 17, 2014, death by illegal police chokehold of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who police said they suspected of illegally selling untaxed cigarettes. In December 2014, a grand jury opted not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death. A federal civil rights investigation is ongoing.
At Wednesday's ceremony, De Blasio told the graduates that the city's decision to employ more neighborhood police officers who walk a beat and know their neighborhoods would help improve relationships.
"The deepening of those bonds is helping to make our officers safer and our neighborhoods safer at the same time," the mayor said.
Police Commissioner James O'Neill urged graduates to be "a little friendlier" while they're on the beat.
"This is the key to being a good cop – just saying hello to people, letting them know that you’re a human being also, and you care about what they care about," O'Neill said.
"If you have any friends that don’t make good decisions, lose them. I know it’s tough to do that with relatives, but if you have any relatives that don’t make good decisions, lose them," added the commissioner.
If the new police officers follow the advice, "that would be a great thing," but more is needed to ensure civilians are treated fairly and with respect, Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, told USA TODAY.
Along those lines, the family has been pushing for a proposed New York City law known as the Right to Know Act that would require officers to publicly identify themselves if they have been involved in questionable altercations and explain the reason for the interactions.
"We're trying to make Right to Know a law, not a policy" as it is now, Carr said. "A lot of police officers doesn't follow policy ... and they do whatever is on their agenda and we think this would give more attention, or they would pay more attention if this was an actual law and not just in the patrol guide."
Carr added, "We have nice police officers who are very respectful of other people and respect other people's rights but then we have those few who I think just took the job to throw their weight around and that has to stop."
New York City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, chairwoman of the council's Committee on Public Safety, said the messages given by the mayor and police commissioner were not new, but that the city recognized those messages continue to be necessary. Since the Garner case, the city has launched a Neighborhood Coordination Officer Program in about 30 of the city's 77 police precincts, three days of additional training focused on reducing excessive use of force and de-escalating tense situations and additional training focused on communicating with emotionally disturbed people, Gibson said.
"Certainly all of these tragedies we don't want to repeat," Gibson said. "All of this has come under this administration in the last year."
The councilwoman, who represents the Bronx, said all of these initiatives represent an opportunity for new NYPD members.
"I think people are not used to our officers saying, 'Good morning. How are you?' " Gibson said. The city is saying to new officers, "You can be an average police officer but you have an opportunity to be exceptional. You can show people more than you can tell them," Gibson added.
During Wednesday's ceremony at Madison Square Garden, de Blasio also told the group that they "look like New York City." The mayor added, "You come from every neighborhood, every background. You reflect the greatness of our city."
The group represents an increase by 2,000 in the number of officers added in one year to New York's police force since 2001 — the biggest annual increase since then.