It was Feb. 26, 1988, and 22-year-old New York City Police Officer Edward Byrne was watching over the Queens house of a man who was a witness in a drug case.
The witness had faced death threats. His home had been firebombed. Byrne was parked in front of the house when, around 3 a.m., a car drove up alongside the patrol car. Two men got out, and one of the men fired five rounds into the patrol car.
Byrne never had a chance.
Drug kingpin Howard “Pappy” Mason would eventually be convicted of ordering four of his men to carry out the hit. Mason had been convicted of gun possession two days prior to Byrne’s death. Prosecutors said he ordered the murder in revenge.
Mason, they said, wanted to send a “symbolic message.” The message received by police was that the department had allowed the city's drug trade to bloom for far too long.
New York Police Department lore has it that Byrne’s murder galvanized the city and the police into ending the chaos of the crack era, driving down the city’s homicide rate to its lowest point since the city began keeping track in the early 1960s. In this new, safer New York, however, the public once so consumed with beating back crime has turned its attention to the methods employed to do it — methods whose cost, from stop-and-frisk to harsher drug laws, have been disproportionately borne by black and Latino Americans.
"Now that crime is not the No. 1 issue in the city and people feel the streets are safe — at least in the nicer neighborhoods in the city — people can look at this with a much clearer eye and mind than they did back in the day," Steven Drizin, an attorney at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, told the Village Voice earlier this year.
With that introspection has come outrage, fueled by recent high-profile police-involved shooting deaths of unarmed black men across the U.S. And with that outrage has come the massive demonstrations critical of police that have pervaded New York City in recent weeks. In response, police unions and their supporters have sought to blame those protests for contributing to the ambush shooting deaths of police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in December. Activists now fear that they will be unfairly tarred with the actions of a lone murderer, preventing changes to a criminal justice system that extracts terrible and disproportionate costs on the lives of black and Latino Americans.
"You got these bomb throwers stirring everybody up,” said Steve Chmil, a retired NYPD detective. “These knuckleheads are saying if you're young and black the cops are gonna come after you. They don't want things to be peaceful. That gets in the way of their agenda."
Exacerbating the tensions between the mayor and the police are ongoing contract negotiations with the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s criticism of police excesses during the election campaign, and his own admission that he has warned his son to be wary of interactions with police.
“There’s blood on many hands tonight — those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day,” Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said in a news conference. “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.”
Lynch was so focused on placing the responsibility on the protesters and the mayor that he barely mentioned the killer.
The shooting, and the reactions to it, made front-page headlines across the country. Byrne’s death had done the same. But when Byrne was killed, most everybody agreed on who the bad guys were.
Nearly 30 years ago, the police state of New York City was facing a completely different reality.
In 1988, drug dealers like Pappy Mason controlled swaths of the city. The crack era had ravaged whole neighborhoods and the police seemed powerless.
"There was this feeling of hopelessness back then, a feeling like crime would never drop,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who spent 22 years in the NYPD, said. “Byrne’s death was a game-changing event. To so brazenly take the life of a police officer — when that happens you immediately attack what symbolized that attack. ”
Byrne’s death became a rallying call to destroy the drug trade responsible for his death before it swallowed more officers. More than 10,000 police from around the country showed up at Byrne’s funeral.
At a ceremony for Byrne and four other officers killed in the line of duty in 1988, Mayor Ed Koch said the pendulum protecting those who violate the law had “swung too far.”
“The pendulum has to swing back to protect society,” he said.
Within two days of Byrne’s death, police arrested 82 people on drug-related charges in the neighborhood where the shooting took place. Koch, alongside Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward, announced the formation of an anti-drug unit, made up of federal, state, and local agencies, called the Tactical Narcotics Team. The NYPD increased the frequency of undercover buy-busts and the city increased the frequency of building inspections.
“Right after that murder happened, they went, like, crazy,” said retired NYPD Detective Chmil. “They were locking up everybody. They were flooding areas that had a lot of narcotics. It was really a frontal assault. They really went after the drug dealers.”
In August 1988, more than 400 NYPD officers and federal agents conducted a sweep against the organization suspected in Byrne’s murder. Mason and 36 others were charged with drug sales and multiple homicides.
The campaign brought thousands of arrests over the next few years and took down drug rings. Its impact on public safety was not immediate. The murder rate continued to rise across the city, from 1,896 in 1988, to 2,245 in 1990. So did the incarceration rate — from the 1980s to the end of the 1990s, New York’s incarceration rate skyrocketed, as the state’s prisons filled up with inmates who were largely black and Latino men. Poor neighborhoods were emptied of dads, uncles, brothers, husbands, breadwinners.
The crime drop began in 1991, and over the next two decades, the crime rate plummeted — from 2,145 homicides in 1991, to 1,561 homicides in 1994, to 333 in 2013. From 1990 to 2008, felonies dropped in New York by 72%, twice as much as the rest of the country. Many factors, which had converged in the years following Byrne’s death, were cited: A larger police force, data-driven strategies, increased enforcement of quality-of-life laws, and an improving economy were all among them. Social scientists are still arguing over which factors were decisive.
But the impetus, New York police officers say, was Byrne’s murder.
“Twenty-five years ago, the world changed,” Lynch said on the anniversary of the shooting last year. Byrne’s death, he added, “was the catalyst that helped us take back this city, corner by corner, door by door, street by street.”
The pendulum Koch spoke of has, at least politically, started to swing back the other way as crime rates continue to hit new lows.
De Blasio campaigned against police use of stop-and-frisk. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson campaigned on a promise to review old cases that may have led to wrongful convictions. New York City granted five black and Latino men wrongly convicted of a 1989 rape, known as the Central Park Five, $1 million for each year of their wrongful imprisonment — the largest such settlement ever. In 2009, the state rolled back its harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws. The prison population declined.
Law enforcement tactics of the 1980s and 1990s that cracked the drug rings are under careful scrutiny. Former prosecutors and detectives have been forced to testify in civil rights lawsuits filed by recently exonerated men.
Across the U.S., states have relaxed hardline sentencing guidelines for drug convictions, and a growing number have decriminalized various uses of marijuana.
On the federal level, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) introduced a bill earlier this year in Congress to reduce penalties for low-level drug offenders and juvenile offenders. In October, former President Bill Clinton likened sentencing laws of the 1990s to using a shotgun for a problem “that needed a .22.”
This was the political climate when the officer-involved deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and other black men and boys took place, setting the stage for mass outrage against what demonstrators have said is unjustified police brutality. In almost every case, grand juries declined to indict police for their role in these deaths, even where — as in the Garner case — the evidence seemed incontrovertible.
In 1988, the city was angry at the NYPD for failing to keep the city safe from criminals. In 2014, tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding to be kept safe from the police.
Speaking on NBC’s Today show, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the December killings of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were “a direct spin-off” of the recent demonstrations.
The shooter, identified by police as 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, killed himself in a nearby subway station with officers in pursuit. He had shot his ex-girlfriend in Maryland before traveling to Brooklyn. Earlier in the day, an Instagram profile linked to Brinsley had posted a photo of a handgun, with a caption stating that he planned to kill police officers as revenge for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner: “I’m Putting Wings On Pigs Today. They Take 1 Of Ours..... Let’s take 2 of Theirs #ShootThePolice.”
Activists denounced efforts to tie the protests to the shooting.
“Any use of the names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, in connection with any violence or killing of police, is reprehensible and against the pursuit of justice in both cases,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement. “The Garner family and I have always stressed that we do not believe that all police are bad, in fact we have stressed that most police are not bad.”
In a show of solidarity, Garner’s daughter visited the memorial for the fallen officers two days after the shooting. Neither Bratton nor any police union officials had visited the memorial for Garner.
“It hit my heart because I know what it feels like, with this upcoming season and you don’t have your father around,” Emerald Snipes-Garner told reporters at the scene. “We have to be peaceful.”
Still, activist groups acknowledge they are vulnerable. Theirs is not an anti-police campaign, they say; they simply want a better, more accountable police force, one that doesn’t shatter the lives of city residents in the name of keeping them safe.
“This is a very fragile moment,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “We face the additional challenge of transforming the pain and anger our disparate communities feel into a commitment to reconciliation.”
To those angry and fearful of what they see as an “anti-police” sentiment, Liu and Ramos’ deaths were an inevitable tragedy.
“There were those protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge chanting, 'What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!'” said retired NYPD Lt. Joe Ranone. “Would you say that’s encouraging somebody to kill a cop?”
In early December, at a police union meeting, Lynch divided the city into “our friends” and “our enemies,” although he did not identify who was who. But when it came to the enemies, he told the police union delegates before him, “The rules are made by them to hurt you.”
The coming days, some activists believe, may determine the fate of efforts to place police practices under greater scrutiny. Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which sued the city over stop-and-frisk, is “absolutely” concerned that the past few days may erase months of momentum.
On the Monday after the shooting, de Blasio called for a suspension of the protests until after the funerals of Liu and Ramos, but hundreds of people turned up anyway, many holding signs with anti-police slogans. At Ramos' funeral, several hundred officers staged their own protest against de Blasio, turning their backs on the mayor as he delivered a eulogy for the slain officer.
Warren said de Blasio’s request played right into the hands of those attempting to poison the movement going forward. Stopping the protests, he added, “gives rise to the narrative that they’re connected. The two are not even closely linked.”
Whatever the cause and effect, the NYPD’s response to a possible on-the-job danger that turned a tragic corner when Liu and Ramos were shot remains unclear.
Despite the December shootings, being a cop in New York is much safer than it used to be. From 1971 to 1980, 60 NYPD officers were killed and 235 were injured by gunfire, according to a recent New York Daily News analysis of police data. From 1981 to 1990, 28 were killed and 203 injured. By contrast, eight officers were killed and 46 injured from 2004 to 2013.
To the cops of the 1970s and '80s, today’s danger is different from the one they faced when organized groups, like drug kingpins or the Black Liberation Army, actively targeted officers. Those enemies were ruthless and powerful, but cops knew how to deal with them through the frame of crime-fighting.
“Back then there were more organized groups that were bent on executing cops,” said Ranone. “This one on Saturday was just a nut who apparently hated cops.”
The way some former cops see things today, the threat is not a tangible group, but a climate of hostility they believe is out of the police department’s control. Activists, meanwhile, fear that the city’s police will exploit the martyrdom of their slain comrades to again escape accountability.
“I see tough times ahead right now,” said Ranone. “It’s just gone too far. The copycats, you know. They’ll just come out of nowhere and do it.”
Something changed when Liu and Ramos were shot, protesters and cops agreed. And now they’re all just waiting to see which direction the pendulum will swing.