Just as the death of Princess Di took the
cop colonic of Abner Louima off the front pages in 1997, Hillary Clinton is riding to Rudy Giuliani’s rescue now, turning Amadou Diallo, at least temporarily, into yesterday’s tabloid teaser.
Without so much as the arrest of even the triggerman in this 41-shot salute to the age of aggressive policing, the Diallo story is taking a sudden backseat to a grinnin’ Giuliani on every Sunday morning talk show, welcoming a Senate race against the First Lady.
To make sure he tilted the news away from the worst crisis of his second term, Giuliani also scheduled a weekend media blitz about his confiscatory car crackdown on drunk drivers. This unprecedented short-circuiting of the presumption of innocence put him on the network news Sunday night as well, apparently oblivious to the irony in his bolstering of street cops’ powers at the very moment when they seem most unable to handle the authority they already have.
Indeed, Giuliani has been so indelicate about the implications of the Diallo shooting that, in the middle of the rage over it, he and his Tonto, Police Commissioner Howard Safir, revealed that the NYPD was shifting to deadlier hollow-point bullets. Safir’s spokeswoman explained that the city’s current full-metal-jacket bullets pass through a body without causing “perps” to drop, and ricochet off walls, giving implicit credence to a defense Diallo’s killers might well employ to justify their own firing panic. Hollow points, on the other hand, corkscrew into a body and stay there, forcing it to the ground. Police sources suggested that Diallo might have lived if he’d simply gone down on impact.
After the editorial pages criticized the timing of the bullet switch, the mayor’s spinmeister began saying it had nothing to do with Diallo, but was long-planned policy. In fact, as soon as Safir returned from a post-Diallo California junket, the Post reported that he’d convened a “secret top-level briefing” about the killing that “forced” the brass “to conclude that the NYPD must change the type of bullets it uses.”
Such Giuliani misinformation is so commonplace— especially when it involves cops— that the mayor has told reporters that four, or at other times, five, of his uncles wore blue. Precinct commanders and other supervisors have doctored crime stats.
Just last week, police sources accused the driver of a car that accidentally killed a cop of being drunk, though they were already sitting on a zero-booze Breathalyzer test. Similarly, the NYPD branded the mother of the two kids recently murdered as negligent, suggesting that she hadn’t reported them missing when, in fact, police and family court had repeatedly rebuffed her attempts to alert them.
In Giuliani’s second year, the police stopped releasing the annual, 50-or-so-page firearms assault discharge report with details on every police firing. Instead, when incidents like the Diallo killing occur, the administration conjures up its own selective stats, all designed to create the impression that the NYPD is the nation’s most “restrained” police force. The truth requires a bit more perspective than the mayor’s sound bites and charts.
For two decades prior to Giuliani’s taking office in 1994, the number of people killed by the NYPD “mirrored fairly closely the number of ‘civilians’ killing each other,” according to John Jay College criminologist Andrew Karmen.
When the city’s murder rate rose in the ’70s, so did the number of police killings, contends Karmen. When murders dropped in the early ’80s and rebounded in the latter half of that decade, cop killings did the same again, hitting a low of 11 in 1985. Both “civilian” and police killings “peaked” in the first year of the Dinkins administration, Karmen concludes, and declined together thereafter. By the time David Dinkins left office in 1993, the number of fatal police shootings had dipped from a high of 39 to 22, just as the murder rate had dropped from 2262 to 1951.
The correlation came apart in Giuliani’s first year. The murder rate plummeted by 379, yet the number of police killings rose to 29. Indeed, while murders continued to drop dramatically in 1995 and 1996, police killings inched upward from 26 in 1995 to 30 in 1996. Cop killings were the only acts of violence rising in the first three years of the Giuliani era— up by 36 percent.
In Los Angeles, police killings dove by 42 percent over the same three years, San Diego 44 percent, Philadelphia 54.5 percent, Houston 53.8 percent. Nationally, “justifiable homicides by police” fell 24 percent between 1993 and 1996.
Giuliani prefers to concentrate, however, on the last two years, when NYPD gun killings dropped to 20 in 1997 and 19 in 1998. A mayor who routinely contrasts the city before and after his own inaugural has suddenly changed parameters. He’s limiting his police killing comparison to 1995 so he can show numbers that are down from the 1996 level of 30. He’s comparing his own high with his own low.
Had Giuliani instead measured Dinkins’s final total against the 1998 tally, it would have revealed a mere 13.6 percent decline in police killings, compared with a 59 percent drop in the murder rate. That would’ve raised a provoking question: with so many fewer people killing one another, why are police killing at almost the same rate?
Indeed, since the mayor’s data were limited to police shootings (meaning they would not include, for example, the choke-hold slaying of Anthony Baez), the most relevant comparison would be with the number of civilian handgun murders. They fell an astounding 81 percent, from 1436 to 271. It’s as if Wyatt Earp were the only guy firing away at the O.K. Corral.
Al Sharpton has taken to making a comparison of his own: Giuliani’s reaction to the Louima incident in August 1997 and his response to Diallo. Sharpton says the mayor took strong action on Louima because he was running for reelection, and that he’s doing nothing about Diallo because he isn’t running now.
What Sharpton’s missing is that Rudy is in a full-force election mode. The difference in his handling of the two incidents is attributable to what he’s running for: statewide office. In 1997, he had to mend a city torn asunder to secure his mayoral mandate. In 1999, he need only play to a statewide white base.
The morning the Louima incident surfaced, Giuliani said the charges “should result in the severest penalties, including substantial terms of imprisonment.” One officer was immediately arrested by Internal Affairs, and the mayor, on one of two hospital visits to Louima, promised to “make examples” of the officers who committed these “reprehensible” crimes.
Safir and the mayor took instant action at the Brooklyn precinct, dumping everyone from the commander on down. Both went public, pleading that cops break the blue wall of silence. “He’s had his best 48 hours as mayor,” said Norman Siegel, the civil libertarian who is Giuliani’s harshest brutality critic.
Since Diallo’s death, however, Rudy has merely been a defensive number cruncher. He actually corrected a Guinean diplomat who quoted him as calling the killing a “mistake.” Sympathy for a “tragedy” is all he can muster, as if he were a mere observer. He’s counting on news events rather than his own actions to get him out of the crosshairs. He is, after all, maneuvering for the Senate ballot line of the singlemindedly procop Conservative Party, just as he is positioning himself for the GOP line without a primary.
Giuliani is not so much the mayor anymore as he is a candidate, and this damaged town will have to settle for whatever he thinks flies politically, rather than what we need socially.
Research: Coco McPherson, Soo-Min Oh, Ron Zapata