Raging Bull

Giuliani's Knee-Jerk Cop Defense Is as Incendiary as It Is Inaccurate

He stood in the closetlike vestibule of his Soundview home, reaching for the keys in his pocket, his eyes filled with terror at the four barking white faces just feet from him with guns as large as history. This newly arrived African, who chose America, would be greeted by a welcome wagon of 9mm bullets in the darkness of the night. Every mother in New York descended from a slave could see her son, every man himself.

The mayor suspended judgment. He asked for patience. A two-story house became a pockmarked memorial visited by thousands and yet the mayor, who's never missed a water main break, stayed away from the 41 holes in the heart of his city.

Within 14 hours of Amadou Diallo's death, Rudy Giuliani left town for Pennsylvania to regale a banquet room of white Republicans with the story of how he'd tamed New York. His shadow, the same police commissioner who'd canceled a trip to a national police conference to be at his side the week before the 1997 election, flew almost as quickly to California for a five-day parley, and the mayor said the trip was okay. "It wouldn't make sense to interrupt him," Giuliani explained as angry crowds gathered near his fenced-off City Hall, "unless there was an actual crisis going on, which there isn't."

Marchers at downtown Diallo protest finger the mayor.
Michael Sofronski
Marchers at downtown Diallo protest finger the mayor.

The mayor met with a delegation of African leaders and when one told the press that he had expressed sorrow over this "regrettable mistake," his press secretary rushed to correct the diplomat, insisting he'd never called it a mistake, only a "tragedy." Then he manufactured body-count charts he thought could answer a cry no number could silence and, pointer in hand, delivered a lecture on NYPD restraint.

He had talked for years about how well he understood police officers. He'd told us that four of his uncles were cops. At the funerals of policemen and firemen, he had repeatedly spoken of them and their families as the special people of New York, the best of our time. Tin-eared now, he could not hear Diallo or his family. He could not feel the pain of so many of the people of his city because, in truth, these were not his people.

Black men died at the hands of New York police long before Rudy Giuliani took office. They will continue to die if he moves on to become Senator Cop. But the mayor who has made himself synonymous with the NYPD cannot be surprised if a city that credits him, at his own insistence, for the department's anti-crime success also blames him for its savage excess. He cannot evade a share of responsibility for police aggression when it kills the gentle if he tours the land seeking plaudits when it supposedly stops criminals in their tracks.

Beginning with his demagogic 1992 appearance at a police riot near City Hall to protest David Dinkins's creation of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), Giuliani has a record of contributing to a climate of brutality that now grips every community of color in New York:

  • When the Abner Louima incident threatened his reelection campaign in 1997, he appointed a 28-member task force, saying he believed that "there is a real opportunity, one that only gets presented to you for a period of time, to permanently change the way in which the Police Department relates to the communities in NYC." Five months after the election, he dismissed the task force's one-inch- thick report, saying its recommendations "made very little sense," agreeing to adopt only the one that called for changing the title of the NYPD's office of community affairs to community relations. "That's a good change," he said.

  • CCRB complaints have risen from 3580 in 1993, the last year of Dinkins, to 4975 in 1998, a 39 percent increase. While complaints soared to a high of 5618 in 1995, they dipped to a low of 4816 in the middle of the mayor's 1997 reelection campaign, climbing upward again last year by 4 percent. A Dateline investigative crew using black "testers" twice found contemptuous resistance when they tried to file a complaint at a precinct in 1997 and 1998.

  • Though a city commission that investigated police misconduct recommended the creation of a permanent independent monitor, Giuliani has twice vetoed and bottled up in court city council­approved bills to create one. "A much better way to improve the police department," argued a mayor who'd once headed federal probes of corrupt cops, "is to get it to investigate itself."

  • The largest increases in CCRB complaints between 1993 and 1997 involved allegations about invasions of privacy. Premises searched went from 29 complaints to 166; persons searched from 232 to 502; property damaged from 157 to 223. Unholstered gun complaints went from 38 to 66 and threats of arrest climbed from 166 to 402. Only four complaints were filed about the firing of police weapons in 1993, compared with 26 in 1995 and 20 in 1996 and 1997.

  • A Brooklyn grand jury declined in 1997 to indict two cops who'd fired 24 times at an unarmed black man sitting in a car, but issued a muted report criticizing the Street Crime Unit that subsequently killed Diallo. Though Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes is a Giuliani fan, the mayor assailed him for "engaging in a little more of a political exercise than an exercise in revealing facts." The report's nine recommendations died on its pages, though many, such as the finding that officers in the unit had "too much discretion," may be hauntingly relevant to the Diallo shooting.
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