Shea gives Barbot the benefit of doubt, but will de Blasio?

New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot.
New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot.

Shea gives Barbot the benefit of doubt, but will de Blasio?

NYC Health Commissioner insults NYPD, but she was provoked.
May 14, 2020

New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot may have said she didn’t give “two rats’ asses about your cops” to an NYPD chief – but the reaction to the story showed a lot of people gave a rat’s ass about the comment.

Egged on by the New York Post’s quintessential pro-police tabloidy telling of the story, NYPD unions immediately called for her firing, as did cop-friendly Staten Island politicians, including Democratic Rep. Max Rose and Republican City Councilman Joe Borelli. The often-unhinged Twitter presence of the Sergeants’ Benevolent Association said of Barbot, “this bitch has blood on her hands.”

And why? According to reporting from the Post and the Daily News, Barbot made the comment nearly two months ago, in late March, at the very moment that NYPD officers were outside a New Jersey warehouse staffed with Barbot’s employees from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In the depths of a shortage of citywide personal protective equipment like face masks, the police had shown up unannounced demanding DOH hand over supplies intended for other essential frontline workers such as doctors and nurses. Barbot’s representatives didn’t deny she said the “rats asses” line during a “heated exchange,” but the other half of that exchange – whatever NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said on the other end of the phone line – hasn’t been reported.

Language aside, some commentators – such as NY1’s Errol Louis – think Barbot was right to hold firm and only give the NYPD some of the masks they were demanding. 

It may be telling that Monahan’s boss, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, was willing to give Barbot the benefit of the doubt in the midst of a high-pressure crisis. “But what was actually said, what was the context, what was the discussion between two people?” he reportedly asked in a Thursday interview on Pix 11. Both officials were “trying to do the best in a bad situation — so I think it’s a little preliminary.”

Insulting the NYPD isn’t a great career move for a city official. It’s even worse to do so in the middle of a global pandemic when (except for those pesky social distancing arrests) cops are being hailed as heroes and many have contracted COVID-19, including more than 40 who have died from it. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appointed Barbot, made as much clear in his Thursday morning press conference. “No public servant should ever in any way say anything disrespectful about the men and women of the NYPD,” he reportedly said

After an early, rocky start, de Blasio has done a lot to position himself as a friend of the NYPD, even if the police unions aren’t friendly in return. 

This latest uproar may be the excuse he was looking for to dump a health commissioner with whom he’s reportedly been butting heads. Of course, the decision to fire Barbot would go against the mayor’s history of sticking up for his commissioners until the last possible moment. And no matter what anybody thinks of Barbot, firing the health commissioner in the middle of the city’s biggest pandemic in a century could do more harm than good. Whatever decision de Blasio ultimately makes, there will be a lot of New Yorkers who give a rat’s ass. 

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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