New York’s Cop Coup

In 1993, New York had its first black mayor — and Rudy Giuliani stirred up a police riot at City Hall.

Illustration by Pete Gamlen.

“The reason the morale of the police department of the city of New York is so low,” Rudolph Giuliani thundered outside City Hall, “is one reason, and one reason alone: David Dinkins!”

In the early 1990s, Dinkins, New York City’s first black mayor, was short on allies and long on problems. The local economy was fragile. Violent crime had yet to noticeably ebb, with more than two thousand people murdered in the five boroughs every year. Racial divisions were stark.

Rudy Giuliani was eager to pile on.

Before he was Donald Trump’s disgraced counsel, Giuliani was the prince of white New York, a mayor-in-waiting. In 1989, running as a Republican, he had nearly beaten Dinkins, who dethroned another favorite of outer borough reactionaries in the Democratic primary that year, Ed Koch. Giuliani may have been ghoulish then, but he was taken far more seriously by the city’s cognoscenti. He was still famous for busting mobsters as the US attorney for the Southern District, winning front page after front page at a time when tabloid news coverage could raise heroes from dust.

The Giuliani image was multilayered, aided and abetted by a fawning press corps. To the many men and women who covered his legal exploits and preening for the cameras, Giuliani was a reformer free of the taint of the Democratic machines. Koch had risen and fallen with these old-school patronage networks; Giuliani would be something better, they fathomed, a neo–Fiorello La Guardia rescuing the city from chaos. If they were looking for promising signs, they could point to Giuliani the candidate’s defense of abortion rights and his occasional kind word for immigrants.

A courtly politician who would appear at times disengaged from day-to-day municipal affairs, Dinkins knew the 1993 rematch was going to be brutal. His 1989 victory had been quietly revolutionary, joining together working-class blacks and liberal whites in the kind of rainbow coalition that seemed otherwise impossible in the nadir of the right-wing 1980s. Dinkins as mayor was a cautious moderate with some progressive impulses, managing to pour billions of dollars over the course of his term into dilapidated housing while overseeing austerity budgets.

In a high-crime era, Dinkins successfully fought to hire more police. But an expansion of the New York Police Department (NYPD) was not enough to placate the cops or their favored politician, Giuliani. Dinkins was a black man who spoke out occasionally on police brutality; for the revanchist police unions, this was the equivalent of declaring war.

It all came to a head when Dinkins announced he would create a civilian agency to oversee the police and attempt to check their power. Dinkins was at least the second mayor to try this. In the 1960s, another liberal, John Lindsay, had attempted to install a civilian review board, only to meet backlash from the police unions, who reviled the mayor for siding with black and Puerto Rican residents. “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups, with their whims and their gripes and shouting,” said John Cassese, who led the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the union for rank-and-file cops, in that era. The PBA helped crush Lindsay’s review board in a public referendum.

For decades, the NYPD had existed as a fiefdom unto its own, operating largely independently from the rest of the city. After Lindsay’s experience, no mayor wanted to take them on. Koch, as a candidate, made noise about cops being overpaid and not patrolling like they should, but he quickly became a staunch supporter of police once he entered office in 1978. By 1989, when Koch was fighting for a fourth term and struggling to fend off Dinkins, he raced straight to the PBA. “You stand between us and the murderers and the rapists and the assaulters,” Koch declared as he took their endorsement. “You are that thin blue line.”

With crime stubbornly high, enough voters could buy the line of Koch and other law-and-order politicians. But many others, particularly African Americans in the outer boroughs, were fed up with a police department that not only failed to protect them from crime but regularly brutalized them with impunity. In 1978, police choked to death a businessman named Arthur Miller in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In 1983, the same thing happened to a young artist, Michael Stewart, who was caught spray-painting graffiti on the wall of the First Avenue subway station in Manhattan’s East Village. A year later, police killed an elderly woman named Eleanor Bumpurs who was in the process of being evicted from her Bronx public housing apartment.

By 1992, Dinkins was serious about creating the agency, which would come to be known as the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). The powers of the oversight body would be relatively limited — there would be no authority to fire officers who were corrupt or killed civilians — but it would exist, as the minimum, as a layer of bureaucracy independent of the department, able to investigate cases of misconduct and produce public findings.

That summer, a police officer shot and killed a Dominican immigrant named José García in Washington Heights. Police were incensed that Dinkins dared to express sympathy for García’s family, since García had a drug conviction. Dinkins had the gall, in their view, to invite García’s family to Gracie Mansion, the stately mayoral residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

On September 16, 1992, more than ten thousand off-duty police officers and their supporters were bused to City Hall Park to protest Dinkins’s plan for the review board. The rally began normally enough, with chants and songs. In uniform were about three hundred police officers who were supposed to control the crowd. Dinkins was away at a funeral for a congressman.

Quickly, the protest devolved. Off-duty police broke through barricades, storming onto the steps of City Hall. “Take the hall!” they chanted, meeting no resistance from their uniformed colleagues. The rioters climbed onto cars and dented them, some swilling beer. With them was Giuliani, who was stumping for mayor against Dinkins. A Giuliani supporter moved through the crowd handing out voter registration cards.

Many rioters wore T-shirts bearing the words “Dinkins Must Go” and buttons with the slogan “Fight Crime. Dump Dinkins.” Several displayed inflammatory and racist signs, including one depicting Dinkins with a large afro and swollen lips. Another called Dinkins a “washroom attendant.” Attendees chanted, “The mayor’s on crack!”

Some of the men confronted Una Clarke, a City Council member from Brooklyn who was outside City Hall. Both she and a black television cameraman were called the N-word.

When the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the department, Chief David Scott, begged the off-duty police to move off the steps of City Hall, he was loudly booed. While many of the protesting police refused to leave City Hall, others spilled out onto the surrounding streets, blocking traffic. Broken beer bottles littered the roadway. Uniformed officers, in some instances, egged on protesters.

Along with Giuliani, Philip Caruso, the PBA president, railed against Dinkins and the civilian review board. “The forces of evil are all around,” he said. “They are trying to surround us. They are trying to defeat us.”

The City Hall contingent of rioters, hungry for action, broke out in another direction, heading for the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. The iconic crossing was quickly jammed in both directions. More than two thousand police milled on the roadways, holding up cars for almost an hour. A New York Times photographer was surrounded by demonstrators, punched, and shoved.

The off-duty cops remained on the bridge for almost an hour, eventually dissipating. Dinkins, speaking to the media, later assailed Giuliani, who was viewed as a ringleader of the riot. “He’s clearly, clearly an opportunist,” Dinkins said. “He’s seizing upon a fragile circumstance in our city for his own political gain.”

Dinkins was unbowed. A year later, the Civilian Complaint Review Board was created, the first all-civilian agency in New York to oversee police misconduct.

In the fall, Giuliani got his rematch against Dinkins. The election, once again, pitted white, conservative New York against the multiracial Dinkins coalition. This time, the deeply polarized election yielded a narrow victory for Giuliani, who was helped along by robust support from white ethnic neighborhoods, particularly in the borough of Staten Island, which voted overwhelmingly that year, in a referendum that would never get state approval, to secede from the rest of the city.

Dinkins was gracious in defeat, and Giuliani went on to burnish the myth that he had saved New York from chaos, capitalizing on a drop in the murder rate that was national in scope and had begun when Dinkins was still mayor. The CCRB, though never the transformational body it was pitched as, persisted: it remains in existence today.

Police unions would continue to rail against it and whatever mild reforms appeared in subsequent years. Another aggressive supporter of police power, Michael Bloomberg, became mayor after Giuliani, but he was followed by a former Dinkins aide named Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio was no revolutionary. But he had campaigned on promising to curtail the use of a controversial policing tactic known as stop-and-frisk and improve relations between police and communities of color. After a policeman killed Eric Garner in 2014, De Blasio’s first year in office, he spoke movingly about how he had to warn his biracial son about police interactions.

The worst police revolt in decades ensued. At two funerals for slain policeman, officers turned their backs, literally, on De Blasio. Patrick Lynch, a PBA president as reactionary as his predecessors, declared De Blasio had “blood on [his] hands.” In the early months of 2015, police initiated a de facto work stoppage. Violent crime remained low, undercutting the message that they were the thin blue line, in Koch’s words, between “the murderers and the rapists.”

Since then, the rise of progressive Democrats in New York has diminished the PBA’s political clout. Lynch’s endorsement of Trump in 2020 guaranteed most Democrats, outside of a select few in suburban-style neighborhoods, would stop seeking out the PBA’s endorsement altogether. But while the PBA is no longer the force it was under Dinkins, the memory of police revolt and a city politics dominated by crime fears lingers on.