Investigating New York's Finest

Tolerance for Brutality Exists Throughout the Police Department

I very much regretted Stanley Crouch leaving the Voice years ago, and I tried hard to keep him here. Both in print and in his bristling Socratic dialogues in the corridors, Stanley was--in the Duke Ellington phrase--beyond category.

He still is occasionally, but increasingly, in his Daily News column, Stanley sounds more like the accommodating Larry King than, let's say, Charlie Parker.

For instance, while not entirely uncritical of our authoritarian mayor, he praises Giuliani for being "strong." Giuliani is strong in the way a neighborhood bully is. I've covered a lot of public officials around the country, and Giuliani is the most vindictive I've seen. If he ever gets to be president, the White House will have the longest enemies list in history.

Moreover--and Crouch never mentions this--Giuliani is spectacularly hostile to civil liberties. As in his continual attempts to deny the press access to information to which we are all entitled, and his planting of surveillance cameras around the city. (See Michael Meyers's "Giuliani v. Free Speech," New York Post, April 14.)

Then there was his role on the Mayor's Task Force on Police/Community Relations. Stanley Crouch was part of the majority that issued a largely tepid report, parts of which might have been of some use, but which avoided the only fundamental ways to change the culture of brutality among too many cops.

Those ways are detailed in the minority report by Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; and Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In the interest of full disclosure: Siegel and Meyers are friends of mine, as is Crouch--though maybe not after this column. And for years I served on the New York Civil Liberties board alongside the staunchly independent Margaret Fung.

The minority report and its recommendations have received hardly any press in the city. But Stanley Crouch did write about the police brutality commission. Here is what he had to say about Norman Siegel's work on it:

"It often seemed as though a burning bush has told Siegel that he was Moses chosen to lead the downtrodden, the people of color, from the bondage of whites so much less enlightened than himself."

Stanley, who likes to mock those flimflam polemicists who play the race card, is now dealing that card himself. I've known Norman Siegel for much of his adult life and he is an authentic civil libertarian, defending people of all colors and viewpoints whose rights and liberties have been gored by agents of the state.

If Siegel sees himself as anybody, it's not Moses--it's as a descendant of James Madison. He is trying to lead us all, both the downtrodden and Stanley Crouch, to the promised land of the Constitution. Where Giuliani can be brutally solipsistic, Siegel is as selfless as anybody I've ever known. Sure, he enjoys defeating antidemocratic forces like Giuliani, but he gives the glory in those cases to the Bill of Rights.

The dissenting report by Siegel, Meyers, and Fung is titled Deflecting Blame, and the photograph on its cover is of the door to the 70th Precinct, a place Abner Louima will never forget.

A core minority recommendation is that "a Special Prosecutor for police corruption must be created for New York City to replace the Special Prosecutor [Joe Hynes] that Governor Cuomo shortsightedly eliminated in 1990."

The special prosecutor, once he or she is appointed by the governor (George Pataki, I hope, won't be there forever), will be entirely independent of, among others, the mayor and the City Council. He or she should be removed only for conflict of interest or corruption.

The special prosecutor would have subpoena powers and would hire his or her own staff of investigators, which would not include those many cops who have to make cases for prosecutors in the various district attorney's offices. That kind of workaday relationship makes it hard, if not impossible, for those cops to be independent investigators.

However, it would make sense for the special prosecutor to hire some retired police officers of integrity who are familiar with the system and the cover-ups it breeds.

The special prosecutor is the key to making police accountable for brutality and corruption. It should also be noted--as in the 1994 Mollen Commission Report--that "brutality, regardless of the motive, sometimes serves as a rite of passage to other forms of corruption and misconduct.

"Some officers told us that brutality was how they first crossed the line toward abandoning their integrity. Once the line was crossed without consequences, it was easier to abuse their authority in other ways, including corruption."

If Giuliani were at all serious about dealing with police brutality, he would consult long and hard with Milton Mollen, who is a remarkably courageous, clearheaded expert on the police department and the law. But, of course, Giuliani shuns all advice that conflicts with his own views. And the mayor--along with the police commissioner--certainly wouldn't like the following section of the Mollen Commission Report:

"As important as the possible extent of brutality is the extent of brutality tolerance we found throughout the Department....This tolerance, or willful blindness, extends to supervisors as well. This is because many supervisors share the perception that nothing is really wrong with a bit of unnecessary force and because they believe that this is the only way to fight crime today." (Emphasis added.)

A cop told me, on the pledge of anonymity, that this assurance that "nothing is really wrong with a bit of unnecessary force" begins soon after a cop joins the force.

Next week: Black parents teach their children how to protect themselves against prejudiced police.

 
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