What the NYPD did right

By exercising restraint against rioters after Patrick Dorismond's funeral, the police gave Giuliani a chance to regain the moral high ground -- but will he take it?

Topics: Crime, Rudy Giuliani,

As far as national publicity is concerned, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the New York Police Department couldn’t get worse P.R. if they paid for it. First there was the rectal assault of Abner Louima at a Brooklyn police station, to which Officer Justin Volpe ultimately confessed, after other cops — under official pressure from Police Commissioner Howard Safire — broke the “blue wall of silence” and testified against him.

Then last February came the Bronx shooting of Amadou Diallo by four white undercover officers, who were acquitted of all charges last month. That was followed too quickly by the March 16 shooting of Patrick Dorismond, the son of Haitian immigrants. Dorismond was approached by an undercover cop who asked if he could help him purchase marijuana; a scuffle ensued and the unarmed Dorismond was blown away.

The Dorismond case was guaranteed to raise another ruckus. Instead of contacting the man’s family and expressing his recognition of their tragic loss, Giuliani released Dorismond’s sealed juvenile record, and dug in his heels. A wildfire of condemnation resulted, but, as those who have followed the mayor know, it was not the sort of thing that would make Giuliani back down.

This past Saturday could have been another black eye for the NYPD, when a riot followed Dorismond’s funeral, with several arrests and 23 cops injured. But so far the media has done very little hard reporting. According to black community workers who were in the crowd outside the Brooklyn church where the funeral was held, the place was crawling with anarchists, black nationalists, Marxist revolutionaries and others who saw the people on the street as cannon fodder. They kept heating them up with vitriolic statements, and trying to bait the police. Eventually, a couple of people pushed the metal barricades over, and the riot the agitators sought took off.

But the police showed perfectly professional restraint. One female cop was badly banged up trying to protect a mother and her child, who were about to be crushed under a barricade. Others were struck by bricks and bottles. “Then,” as one witness said, “the cops with the riot hats and the bats came in, but they didn’t go crazy. They could have. There could have been blood everywhere. You had to respect how well they handled a situation that could have become nuts. It could have been just like those cops in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. It could have gone way over the top.”

As it now stands, Dorismond’s mother and Giuliani have at least one thing in common: They have both condemned the violence of the Saturday riots. What we need now is some sort of movement past the predictable polarization on the issue of police brutality, some resistance to hot air that helps to draw quite clearly the line between those who are seriously concerned about race and law enforcement, and those who are only manipulators and opportunists.

So far Giuliani’s only concession has been to agree that the cop who killed Dorismond, Anthony Vasquez, was right to issue a statement of condolence to the dead man’s mother and family. This has led some to speculate that he is trying to appeal to more conservative voters outside of New York City in his run against Hillary Clinton for Senate. (If so, it is questionable whether that will work, since a poll Tuesday showed Giuliani’s standing statewide had declined since the fracas over Dorismond’s death.)

The mayor’s hard-line position supporting the police might well be partly designed to help him win the votes of the 50,000 or so law enforcement officers who, in a close race, could help him take the city’s five boroughs. Giuliani and the police unions fell out when bad union tactics — threatened work slow-downs — botched the opportunity for the cops to get a raise a few years ago. Denying them their raise made the cops think he had only been interested in them while running for office and needing their votes and endorsement. Who wouldn’t?

In fact, had their union representatives been more diplomatic they might have gotten their demands, or something close to it. Giuliani doesn’t respond well to threats, and some cops have told me they think their union has a lot to learn. But he clearly wants their votes in the next election.

Even more important, the mayor speaks up for the NYPD because of the great pride he takes in how much safer New York is than when he came into office. Everyone knows this, but with the smell of politics in the air, those who want to polarize the city suddenly have amnesia about Giuliani’s real accomplishments. And other New Yorkers are silent, afraid of the hysterical attacks they might suffer for breaking the ideological line.

A young woman who lives in Washington Heights — a hard-working Dominican community known to outsiders for its drug dealers — said people in her neighborhood love Giuliani because police pressure on criminals has made their life better. But she said no one would ever tell that to reporters, for fear of being contemptuously defined as a slavish supporter of the mayor. As one female cop said, “People don’t seem to remember when women put their babies in bathtubs at night to protect them from being shot.”

The violence at Saturday’s funeral, condemned by Dorismond’s own mother as well as Giuliani, should force us to turn a page on the debate over the police. That point of agreement might be turned into something big. Giuliani now has another opportunity to master the situation.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir has already arranged to meet with religious leaders in Brooklyn, including the one who conducted Dorismond’s funeral. Smart. The mayor himself could build on Vasquez’s letter of condolence. One way would be to point out that the bereaved mother, and those community people who were outraged by the rioting in the name of Dorismond, are more characteristic of those communities than the rioters, who thrive on ethnic alienation and hostility.

Giuliani has done this kind of public work before. During the blackout in Washington Heights last summer, he noted publicly what a civilized community it was and how its behavior put to rest all of the stereotypes about those who lived in that section of New York. During the blackout of 1977, there were 3,000 arrests; overnight last year in Washington Heights there were only three. Giuliani spoke up to commend the community for helping the police, the emergency health workers, and each other. It was one of his finest moments.

If that Giuliani reappears, he will not only be a formidable force for his detractors to contend with, the mayor will also make it much, much easier to create an atmosphere in which New Yorkers can actually assess the overall quality of the work done by its police force.

In 1990, for instance, 1,096 black people were murdered. In 1999, there were 356, down by two-thirds. That doesn’t make any act of excessive police force or obnoxiousness less than what it is, but it sure proves that there is more to say about the NYPD than what our professional rabble rousers like to talk about.

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In Stanley Crouch’s column, “Diallo is a martyr, but the cops aren’t murderers,” a sentence stating his position on the Diallo verdict was dropped due to an editing error. The sentence in question should have read, “At the very least I expected a guilty verdict on the charge of reckless endangerment.” Salon regrets the error.

Stanley Crouch is a New York essayist, poet and jazz critic.

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