Assessing NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill’s proposed punishment for using a black cab with white people in it

I don’t think that if you threaten people, or bully them, or harass them that they will then change the subject, or avoid talking about the fact that you are upset with them because they didn’t do what you wanted them to do.

“What can we expect when someone actually tries to protect their own integrity?” asks Susan Lerner of Common Cause.

In summer 2015, I accompanied The New York Times and my colleagues around New York City, to help unveil a new city agency, a media watchdog, tasked with informing the public about government dealings. It was a monumental task. Because the NYPD was going through the NYPD’s own records to find fresh material, we could not even go into their headquarters. No easy task – intimidating them further would have been counter-productive.

Rather than acting aggressively, as the Nix will, the press was frank about the limitations we faced. “Maybe this is all we can do,” complained one of the officers overseeing the process, and we agreed to the plans: more visits to local news outlets; an occasional spot in front of City Hall for the inevitable Q&A. By doing so, we were able to get stories published from some of the most important venues: the papers, the main TV stations.

The next day, an official in the comptroller’s office proposed to write a statement urging us to stop our activity. “The public should be skeptical,” he said.

We saw in the circumstances that the comptroller could be a trusted watch dog. He was aware of our work and we would not disclose his office’s involvement in this. But we could not and would not support his mission of becoming the city’s personal defense lawyer.

It became evident to me that the person controlling the agency on my behalf wasn’t looking at our routine visits, but the political agenda we were working on. His preferred outcome would be to make New York City “more like Paris.” French cities have no outside observers checking their government’s dealings, and have low corruption rates.

I took issue with the job description of the agency’s director, the Department of Investigation. She had no experience in corruption. There was no expert on political advocacy, no one who understood what it meant to reach out to constituents and make public service a place where people believed their opinions mattered. The mayor’s ambitions were clear and became the only criteria we would use.

So what options were left?

The press was going to publish what it knew. There was nowhere else we could go.

The mayor could act on the comptroller’s threats to end the agency, but there was no part of the NYC budget where that would be possible.

Finally, I had to think about the future of the new watchdog agency itself. The official, I suggested, was worried we were out to get him. My response to her: what can we expect when someone actually tries to protect their own integrity? Couldn’t we in fact see the mayor stop us?

It became clear that the emperor had no clothes. We were doing what he didn’t want us to – shining a light on the city’s wheels. He was backtracking. He compromised. In the end, we had managed to do what most of us feared: we continued our work with integrity.

Of course, the story ended in the mayor’s favor.

I later met the then-Comptroller Scott Stringer, and we had a very civil conversation. By then, we were all agreed that he would embrace the mayor’s public integrity announcement. We had done what our two years of work had offered us the chance to do.

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