Way back when Rudy Giuliani was U.S. Attorney and was prosecuting cases that had news organizations salivating, he mastered the art of shaping coverage by controlling, and cleverly channeling, the flow of information. But the proprietary power a prosecutor has over the secrets he gathers does not extend to City Hall, where some data is public, even in an administration that hoards and doctors it.
Yet, since the slaying of Amadou Diallo almost a month ago, the mayor has been dumping phony numbers on us about the restraint of his police force almost daily, even taking them on a traveling show to Washington last week, and the media has just let him talk. Not a word of context. Not a contrary digit.
When pressured by Congressman Gregory Meeks during his recent House testimony, Giuliani put his hand up in the air and swore that there’d been 50 percent fewer “police shootings” in 1998 than in 1993, the final year of his predecessor, David Dinkins. Since the Diallo incident was more than a mere “police shooting”— defined as the number of incidents in which police fire at a perpetrator, whether they hit him or not— it was a curious statistical choice. Presumably the mayor picked it, rather than the much more parallel stat of “police fatal fire,” because the numbers worked better for him.
Had he focused on police killings, he would have had to admit that the number declined dramatically under Dinkins, falling from 39 in 1990 to 22 in 1993, a 44 percent drop. He would also have had to explain why it soared to 30 in Giuliani’s first year and stayed roughly at that higher-than-Dinkins level for 1995 and 1996, declining only in the last two years. In 1998, cops killed 19 people, three less than in 1993, for a drop of only 13.6 percent over the five Giuliani years.
You could scour the 35-page 1993 Firearms Discharge Assault Report and not find the 212 total for “police shootings” that Giuliani cited in his House appearance. He got it by lumping together shootings described separately in “the reasons” for firing tally as “self- defense,” “at a vehicle,” and “other.” Since no formal firearms report for 1998 has been released (though selective references have been made to it in NYPD press releases) and no definition of “other” is offered, it’s impossible to tell if the 111 Giuliani shooting figure for 1998 is a valid comparison.
More important, the stat is meaningless. Police shootings should, in any rational world, be a function of the number of times police are shot at, or the incidents when they confront an armed opponent. Consider these figures from the last complete report in 1997:
E Between 1993 and 1997, there was a 12 percent drop in the number of shots fired by cops (1193 to 1040). There was a 52 percent drop, however, in shots fired “by perpetrators” (565 to 268) during the same four years. The number of perps who discharged weapons fell from 153 to 82, a 46 percent decline.
E In 1993, perpetrators were armed with guns in 59 percent of the incidents listed in the report, which covers any discharges by either cops or perps. In 1997, perps had guns only 38 percent of the time. Perps had weapons of some sort in 97 percent of 1993 cases, but only 81 percent in 1997.
E Shots fired by cops in each of the first three Giuliani years exceeded Dinkins’s last year, reaching a 1995 high of 535 more than 1993, even though shots fired by perps fell by almost 50 percent in the first Giuliani year and stayed near that low level. As with police killings, shots fired by cops did not begin to dip until 1997.
The data demonstrates that it was the perpetrators who were getting more restrained under Giuliani, and that the cops slowly adapted to more peaceful times on the streets.
Similarly, the slight decline in police killings between 1993 and 1998 is hardly a mark of Giuliani-NYPD restraint when juxtaposed with the murder rate, a statistical correlation that held, in broad terms, for decades prior to the Rise of Rudy. Take 1985 for example. In the middle of the Koch years, murders suddenly fell to a decade and a half low of 1392, and police killings hit 11, a modern record. Yet, while murders last year were a mere 629, less than half the 1985 total, the 19 cop killings almost doubled the ’85 figure.
The murder rate dropped almost 14 percent under Dinkins and police killings 44 percent. Murders plunged 69 percent under Giuliani, yet deadly police force only dipped 13 percent. Giuliani can be counted on to never give his self-serving assertions this kind of context, under oath or not.
While Tom Ognibene and his six GOP colleagues on the city council rushed to the ramparts on Rudy’s behalf last week, suggesting incredibly that whites had more to fear from the NYPD than blacks, no white Democrats have dared blame Giuliani policies for Diallo or any other police misconduct.
A Voice questionnaire that asked if the mayor’s policies had “anything to do with the worsening of the problem” or, indeed, if the problem had gotten worse, drew tepid responses from Mark Green, Alan Hevesi, Peter Vallone, Chuck Schumer, and Shelly Silver, the five most powerful white Democrats.
Green came closest to drawing a connection, but after running through a critical litany of Giuliani actions (from blocking an independent police commission to trashing the report of his own brutality task force), he stopped short of ascribing any concrete consequences to this record. Green also put out a timeline of his own actions on police misconduct, demonstrating he’s been distinctively out front for years. Giuliani, on the other hand, “lacks credibility on the issue,” he said, “and has contributed to divisiveness.”
A Vallone spokesman said that while the speaker supported “aggressive police tactics,” their application in cases like Diallo were “a cause for concern.” Faulting special police task forces like the Street Crime Unit, four of whose members fired 41 shots at
Diallo, Vallone stressed a need for SCU training and oversight by precinct commanders. He said nonetheless that it “wasn’t clear” if rising brutality complaints were, in any way, “due to Giuliani policies.”
Schumer said Giuliani “has chosen to ignore thoughtful solutions” from his own task force and others, and called on the mayor to “reexamine this report and implement its viable proposals.” He contended that there was “clearly increased tension” between the police department and “the communities it is supposed to protect,” concluding that “the mayor has not been sensitive enough to this question.”
Hevesi refused to answer any of the questions, pointing instead to his recent NY 1 appearance. He praised Giuliani during that interview for canceling his Texas trip, visiting the mosque, offering to pay the Diallo family’s expenses, and attempting to visit the family, concluding: “I don’t know what he did wrong.” Ironically, Hevesi followed his Giuliani salute with the conclusion that “there can’t be any justification” for the police attack on Diallo, precisely the kind of conclusion the mayor has refused to reach.
The comptroller also toyed with New York magazine, claiming he was considering forcing the NYPD to pay for settlements of misconduct cases out of their own budget. He told the Times the same thing shortly after the Louima incident, but has done nothing about it in the intervening year and a half.
Silver spokeswoman Pat Lynch conceded he’d made no public statements on Diallo or Giuliani policies and wouldn’t, adding that the assembly speaker had privately spoken to the mayor and was interested in “securing better sensitivity training” for cops. Lynch pointed to a package of bills introduced Monday by the Black, Puerto Rican, and Hispanic Caucus, ranging from a residency law to a repeal of the 48-hour rule, as possible remedies. She said it “does seem like more incidents are reported,” adding “we aren’t exactly a fan of Police Commissioner Howard Safir.”
The most immediate test is whether Vallone or Silver, both of whose legislative conferences are filled with minority members, takes any actions on bills or budgets that can send the NYPD and its mayoral master a message.
Research: Coco McPherson, Soo-Min Oh, Ron Zapata
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 2, 1999