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.

    Disturbed that one of the cops had emptied his 16-shot Glock, the grand jury concluded that "the goals of the NYPD with respect to controlling the number of shots fired" in situations like this had "not been achieved." It was also upset that there was "no formal criteria or testing" for assignment to the street crime unit. Citing the NYPD director of training, who said that precinct commanders look for "characteristics like arrest activity, a willingness to be proactive, somebody that is assertive," the grand jury faulted the department for not giving all the officers in the unit specialized training.

  • The latest CCRB report, covering January to June 1998, found a 58 percent increase in police beatings compared with the first six months of 1997, as well as a 27 percent hike in "drag/pull" allegations and 39 percent jump in pepper-spray incidents. Even the Giuliani-appointed CCRB concluded that the recent rise was "troubling."

  • When eight congressmen, led by the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, held a public hearing on police brutality here, the mayor denounced it as a "political rally" though it was deliberately held after his reelection. The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney testified, and a thousand people attended, but Giuliani ignored Conyers's public appeal to "please, Mr. Mayor, give me a minute or two." After one speaker went off on a momentary rant about Jews, the mayor quickly used the incident to denounce Conyers et al. for "not standing up to bigotry."

  • When 16-year-old Michael Jones was fired at 17 times by cops, one of whom also emptied a Glock, the mayor repeatedly assailed his mother while Jones lay in a hospital with six bullet wounds. Blaming the shooting on the fact that Jones was riding his bike armed with an ominous-looking toy gun, Giuliani said: "Adult supervision would have prevented the gun. It would also have prevented being out at 2:30 in the morning for whatever purpose, and I don't think the purpose for which he was out was a salutary one." There was no evidence that Jones, who survived, was involved in any criminal activity.

  • A New York Civil Liberties Union review of Police Commissioner Howard Safir's handling of CCRB complaints found that the mayor's constant companion had "in effect nullified" 66 percent of the tiny number "substantiated" by the agency. CCRB investigations confirmed only 5 percent of complaints, passing them on to Safir for disciplinary action. He did nothing on more than two-thirds of the cases. When Safir did act, 60 percent of the time he imposed "the most lenient disciplinary measures"— a verbal warning or forfeiture of up to 10 vacation days.

    The irony is that Safir himself has three appointees on the CCRB and, as the agency observed in its own report, "panels of the Board almost always substantiate a case with the concurrence of a police commissioner designee."

  • Giuliani dissed a 1996 Amnesty International report that reviewed 90 police brutality cases as "exaggerated," saying the organization had "a viewpoint." He stonewalled a request from Public Advocate Mark Green to examine the department's handling of substantiated CCRB complaints, saying that Green's "motivations are political," and tying up Green for two years in still ongoing appeals that have already lost before five judges. The mayor also threw out the "political" defense at comptrollers Alan Hevesi and Carl McCall when they tried to audit the NYPD, forcing McCall to sue and stalling Hevesi for three years.

  • When a Bronx judge acquitted Francis Livoti of the choke-hold death of Anthony Baez, Giuliani called the verdict "a careful, well-thought-out, legally reasoned opinion." Livoti was later convicted in federal court. When a cop with seven civilian complaints in four years, three of which had been substantiated by the CCRB and involved excessive force, shot a squeegee at point-blank range last year, the mayor saw it as "an ambiguous situation" with facts that "argue for the police officer" as well as for the homeless man who lost his spleen.

    The facts that argued for the cop were the victim's half a dozen minor drug-possession convictions over the prior decade, prompting the mayor to liken the shooting to one of a low-level drug dealer. "It doesn't mean we're going to stop enforcing the law against drug dealers," said Giuliani, pledging that his celebrated war against squeegees would continue.

  • The mayor opposes residency laws for city cops. His corrections department strip-searched all 53,000 misdemeanor arrestees for 10 months in 1996 and 1997, until stopped by a lawsuit. Court claims against the city for cop misconduct rose 74 percent between 1993 and 1997. Giuliani's first four budgets— including the one issued three months before the Louima incident— cut funding for the CCRB. Had the cuts not been restored by the city council, he would have cumulatively removed $2.4 million from a $5.2 million agency.

    Shortly after the Louima incident, Giuliani added $1.5 million to CCRB's budget, only to call for a $588,000 cut a week after his reelection.

    The mayor's most insidious defense of the police is to float the notion that those who criticize cops in incidents like Diallo are "cop bashers" who evince a form of "prejudice" no different than racism and anti-Semitism. Nothing disturbs the NYCLU's Norman Siegel more: "To equate hundreds of years of oppression based on immutable racial traits with criticism of the tactics and practices of individual police officers," he says, "is to show how disconnected Rudy Giuliani is to this issue."

    It is a disconnect of denial, a disconnect of convenience. The mayor is fond of attacking every criticism as political. But it is he who has positioned himself as New York's Mighty Whitey, playing to the national avatars of a party that long ago abandoned Lincoln. It is he who has justified the "benefit of the doubt" he gives cops by contending that "crime would not have gone down as much" if he "let police officers hang out there" and stayed neutral until all the facts about an incident are known.

    It is he who, on his way to Washington, will leave this city bitterly partitioned, with blacks and whites blind to each other.

    Research: Coco McPherson, Soo-Min Oh, and Ron Zapata

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