DAVID GREENE, HOST:
After two New York City police officers were shot and killed, there were tensions between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD's rank-and-file. These tensions were not new. The two sides have long been at odds over an expired labor contract. Some wonder whether all this explains an apparent work slowdown in the department. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: For two weeks, the NYPD basically stopped making arrests and writing tickets for low-level offenses. So if you had an open container on New Year's Eve or hopped a subway turnstile, you could be pretty sure the cops were going to look the other way. But Police Commissioner William Bratton says arrests and tickets are starting to rise.
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COMMISSIONER WILLIAM BRATTON: While the numbers aren't what we would describe as normal numbers based on previous years, previous months, we are pleased with the fact that the officers are beginning to re-engage again.
ROSE: The NYPD's work slowdown came after scores of cops turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funerals of two officers who were shot in their patrol car last month. Police unions accuse de Blasio of contracting to an anti-NYPD climate by what they see as the mayor's sympathy for protesters against police brutality. But the unions deny coordinating the work slowdown. And they insist that all this has nothing to do with contract negotiations.
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PATRICK LYNCH: That's not what this is about.
ROSE: That Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association, speaking last week to NPR's All Things Considered. The 20,000 members of Lynch's union have been working without a contract for four-and-a-half years.
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LYNCH: This was about safety, and this is about the tone on the street. We've been having contract fights for centuries with City Hall and will continue to have that.
ROSE: In the past year, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration reached agreements with teachers and other municipal workers, including some police managers, but not with the patrolman's or sergeants' unions. And now the PBA is headed to binding arbitration with City Hall.
NOEL LEADER: To say that it has nothing to do with contracts - I think that's not being totally honest.
ROSE: Noel Leader is a former NYPD sergeant and a cofounder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. He thinks the department's work slowdown had many causes, including bare-knuckle negotiating tactics.
LEADER: Some of it is political theater, positioning for a better contract by attempting to put some pressure on the mayor because I can see how it works in the best interest of the union to force the mayor to resolve this negative relations as soon as possible.
ROSE: Leader isn't the only insider who thinks that union politics are adding fuel to the fight between the NYPD's rank-and-file and City Hall. John Liu is a former New York City comptroller and a professor at Baruch College.
JOHN LIU: If the contract was the only issue out there, that would not be driving this level of discontent. But the reality is that the lack of a contract is a clear and explicit manifestation of the ongoing frustrations and feelings of disrespect.
ROSE: On the other hand, this is not a brand new dynamic between the unions and City Hall. For the patrolmen's union, arbitration has become routine. It had similar fights with former mayors, including Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg - two administrations that had friendlier relations with the rank-and-file.
HANK SHEINKOPF: This is largely not about the contract. This is about a clash of cultures.
ROSE: Hank Sheinkopf is a former cop. He's now a political consultant who's worked with police unions in 25 states.
SHEINKOPF: You're talking about an underpaid group of individuals - underpaid as compared to other police departments within this region - doing a very dangerous job. And they don't feel they're being respected. What makes it worse is they are very blue-collar. And the people in power are - they feel are - looking down at them.
ROSE: Sheinkopf says the financial issues can be dealt with in arbitration. But it may be harder to fix the feelings of disrespect which go back to Mayor de Blasio's campaign promise to reform how the NYPD interacts with communities of color. The mayor has softened his tone in recent days, talking more about the greatest police force in the world. But that hasn't translated into any breakthroughs at the bargaining table. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.