With Amadou Diallo, the cops went too far. In Central Park, not far enough. But guess what? It's the same problem.
The day after a mob in New York’s Central Park sexually assaulted at least 24 women unimpeded by nearby police, Bruce Springsteen fans lined up 25 blocks away for the Madison Square Garden concert at which the Boss sang “American Skin (41 Shots),” his new dirge for police shooting victim Amadou Diallo.
The collision of these two Manhattan events encapsulates the profoundly polarized national debate over policing. Springsteen’s song — with the words “41 shots” intoned over and over — takes on the NYPD for overreacting: “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life.”
But the victims of the Central Park “wolf pack” attack — a sort of super frat party, in the wake of the Puerto Rican Day parade, which escalated from super-squirter fights to stripping women’s clothing and near-rape — say the cops didn’t react enough, and the emerging details leave little room for doubt: “I went over with my camera and started shooting but the cops just stayed there,” said witness David Grandison. “I saw girls getting groped, getting pushed down. The cops knew what was going on.”
So which is it? Is the NYPD too harsh or too soft?
Here is what needs to be understood about the NYPD’s latest scandal: Goldbricking cops in Central Park and trigger-happy cops in the Bronx are the same problem. The cops who did not want to disrupt their easy Sunday overtime to listen to fitness instructor Anne Payton Bryant describe a horrifying attack are a symptom of the same problem as the undercover officers who fired those 41 shots memorialized in Springsteen’s song.
It’s the same problem that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir did not want to face after the shootings of unarmed Diallo and Patrick Dorismond; and the problem they were still evading this week. Giuliani went into the same change-the-subject mode as when he revealed Dorismond’s juvenile arrest record, pointing Monday to all the beer cans confiscated at the parade: “This was not a police department which was asleep that day.”
As the horrifying details of Sunday’s assaults emerge — 24 women, including a 14-year-old, have told police they were groped or raped; the mob in the park ran wild for at least a half-hour after the first victims ran to police officers on the park’s edge; Peyton Bryant shuffled from one officer to another until she was finally humiliated at a precinct house — one fundamental question remains: How did it happen? How did so many police officers work so hard to look the other way?
It’s not a problem of lazy officers or overzealous officers. Just as much as the Diallo and Dorismond cases, police inaction in the face of Sunday’s rampage reveals the scandalous crisis of philosophy and leadership behind the NYPD’s publicity machine.
Philosophy? Ask David Harris, a professor at the University of Toledo School of Law and a leading authority on police management. “Under Giuliani, the NYPD way of doing things is that the police decide what is good for you,” he says. “They have been trained and encouraged not to listen. There is no reason we should expect that to be any different when handling victims than when handling perpetrators.”
Leadership? Ask Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, a former chief of police in San Jose, Calif., and a former New York police inspector. “Giuliani has got cops hyped up to treat the public with contempt,” he says. “They spend their days stopping and searching people, 90 percent of whom are innocent. You can’t turn that contempt on and off like a faucet.”
“Giuliani wants all the credit for decreases in crime,” McNamara says, but avoids responsibility when things go wrong. You want to know what will happen here? They’re going to announce some demotions and find a couple of scapegoats. But the people really responsible, Safir and Giuliani, will not be held accountable.”
In fact, shifting the blame has already begun. Anonymous NYPD officials are claiming in the media that the Central Park attacks following the Puerto Rico Day Parade resulted from politicians taking a hands-off attitude toward a minority community event. It’s payback, they hint, for the police-brutality protests, of which Springsteen’s song — derided by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — is being treated as the latest chapter.
So the near-rape of Peyton Bryant and 15 other women is Al Sharpton’s fault?
Such blame-shifting, says former NYPD commissioner William Bratton — who instituted many of the NYPD’s quality-of-life policies, but is now a Giuliani critic — is “a dangerous undercurrent. One of the challenges for the mayor and police commissioner will be to deal with that undercurrent.” But, warns Bratton, there’s no sign that Giuliani and Safir are coping with this crisis.
“It has only fueled the controversy for the mayor and police commissioner to focus on statistics,” he says. “When they attempted to downplay this, they ceased to be effective messengers to the community. It was the wrong approach to take to this incident. You should express outrage, because it was outrageous.”
McNamara, who was a finalist in former Mayor David Dinkins’ search for NYPD commissioner, believes that the problem is strongly tied to Giuliani’s emphasis on pushing down precinct crime rates. “The reward system is not in reporting crime,” he says. “Instead, precinct commanders’ promotions depend on keeping the crime reports low. So when you report a serious felony like this without an arrest, you get questions.”
It’s also, he says, the result of years of the NYPD’s hostility to the neighborhoods they police. “Even when I was an officer, the force used to have a rule that there should be no unnecessary contact with the public. That’s been revived in recent years, with all of these searches and entrapment. A police officer who doesn’t talk to anyone on their beat isn’t going to know how to talk to a victim any more than they know how to talk to a perpetrator.”
As more details of the catastrophic failure of the NYPD in Central Park come out, the blame-shifting is sure to continue. Look for more accusations of the cops being “soft” on the Puerto Rican Day Parade, more accusations of post-Diallo politicking.
The reality, however, may be best captured in Springsteen’s song, which includes a central image of a police officer praying desperately over Diallo’s body in that vestibule. The Central Park wolf pack, the Diallo shooting — both are symptoms of a police department that has lost its way, ill at ease in its own American skin.
Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News. More Bruce Shapiro.
More Related Stories
- Must-see morning clip: Bill O'Reilly visits "The Daily Show"
- Lawsuit alleges anti-gay hiring practices at ExxonMobil
- Boy Scouts poised to vote, still greatly divided on gay youth
- House supporters of KXL received $56m from fossil fuel industry
- 80-year-old becomes oldest to climb Mount Everest
- Before FBI shooting man implicated self, Tsarnaev in triple murder
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- UK emergency committee convenes after attack
- Brave scout leader tried to reason with London attackers
- If Alex Pareene were a cable news executive...
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
- UK officials: Radical Islam behind London attack
- Pa. governor "can't find" any Latinos to work in his administration
- London machete attack could be linked to terrorism
- Conservative group blames military sexual assault on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal
- Lois Lerner, IRS disaster
- Donald Rumsfeld worried that marriage equality will lead to polygamy
- Experts: Fox News spying scandal a game-changer
- San Francisco Giant Jeremy Affeldt apologizes for homophobic past
- 9-year-old slams Rahm over Chicago schools
- Stockholm riots rage for third day
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11