News & Politics

Awkward Allies


In the fall of 1996, Mark Green sat down with the half dozen black males on the small staff of his Public Advocate’s office and learned that every one of them had been hassled by city cops. Green, by his own account, had long been besieged by calls from citizens, many of them minority, railing about police abuse.

So, in January 1997, Green wrote a letter to new police commissioner Howard Safir and launched an investigation into how the NYPD was handling the most credible complaints against cops—the 5 percent that were “substantiated” by the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board. In an attempt to determine how aggressive Safir and his predecessor, William Bratton, had been when faced with the challenge of disciplining cops whose misconduct had been confirmed by the CCRB, Green’s letter demanded access to the case files for 1995 and 1996. Safir stonewalled, and Green sued, winning at all three state court levels but not gaining access to the files until the spring of 1999.

David Eichenthal, Green’s chief of staff, says now that when Green finally prevailed in court, he modified his original demand. “We dropped our request for 1995 cases, asking only for cases from 1996 forward,” says Eichenthal. The difference was stark.

Bratton had been police commissioner for 28 of the 36 months that preceded Green’s initial request in 1997 (the commissioner makes all disciplinary decisions himself). However, by retroactively changing the time frame of the cases, Green excluded all but four months of Bratton’s tenure, focusing instead on Safir’s term. As a result, only two of the 52 badly handled cases detailed at great length in the two reports that Green ultimately issued are attributable to disciplinary decisions made by Bratton. And Eichenthal says, “We don’t know how we got them since we didn’t ask for them.” Eichenthal also says that “the overwhelming majority” of the 760 cases statistically analyzed in the study are drawn from the Safir era.

Two pivotal events involving Safir, Bratton, and Green occurred between Green’s 1997 letter and the 1999 modification of the study’s scope. Bratton became a policy and political ally of the Public Advocate’s, even joining a Green advisory panel. And in February 1999, Green called for the resignation of Safir, saying the commissioner “needs to move on so that new leadership can meet the challenge of police misconduct.”

Green’s news-making statement denouncing Safir—issued in the midst of the protests over the 41-shot slaying of Amadou Diallo—called the “the Giuliani administration’s five-year” record of ignoring police misconduct its “greatest failure.” But Green did not mention that his then adviser Bratton was commissioner for half that period.

The police misconduct reports Green eventually issued even made a misleading attempt—by narrowly selecting CCRB data—to suggest that Bratton was more vigorous than Safir in disciplining cops. Nonetheless, Eichenthal insists that the belated revision of the study calendar “had nothing to do” with “the courting of Bratton” or the damning of Safir, and describes the decision instead as a search for the most recent data.

Of course, if the study had remained on its initial 1995 track and come out, as it did, seven months ago, it might well have savaged the disciplinary records of Bratton and Safir, making the grand, baptismal press conference of the Green mayoral campaign in February a bit awkward. In fact, Bratton might not have endorsed Green at all. What Green has to explain now is: If he and Bratton are on the same page on crime reduction strategies, are they also on the same page when it comes to disciplining bad cops, a singularly significant measure of the Giuliani administration to Green just two years ago?

Bratton was arguably the best police commissioner in the history of the city, but only if crime-reducing management innovations are the sole standard. His record on police misconduct is simply not compatible with the support Green is now getting from black voters in every public poll—support that Eichenthal acknowledges is largely attributable to Green’s outspoken opposition to Giuliani police practices. It’s hardly surprising that Green, falsely tagged with a soft-on-crime image, welcomes Bratton’s support. But with it, Green implicitly attaches himself to a record that includes these highlights:

  • Between 1993 and the end of 1995—while Bratton reigned—civilian complaints soared by 57 percent, from 3580 to 5618. They repeatedly declined under Safir.
  • While cops with substantiated complaints who received discipline hit an all-time low of 21 percent in 1996—the year Bratton and Safir split—Safir’s annual figure soon topped Bratton’s 46 percent average over his first two years. Safir hit 47 percent in 1998 and 61 percent in 1999. At the time Green called for Safir’s resignation because of his failure to discipline police misconduct, Safir was actually sanctioning a higher percentage of cops with substantiated complaints than Bratton ever had.
  • Joel Berger, the former assistant corporation counsel who handled police misconduct lawsuits against the city, did a snapshot analysis of the handling of 95 complaints substantiated by the CCRB between July 1995 and June 1996. In 23 cases, the department settled with the cops, who got what Berger called “the lightest forms of discipline, not even involving loss of vacation days.” Only one faced pending charges. The rest, he said, “were not disciplined at all.” Bratton was commissioner for virtually the entire period. Eichenthal concedes that Green’s office has “no idea” what sanctions Bratton imposed on the cops he disciplined, though the reports assail the minimal sanctions that Safir employed.
  • In Bratton’s 313-page memoir, Turnaround, published by Random House in 1998, he devoted a mere four paragraphs to the issue of “police brutality,” which he referred to as a “pocket of concern.” He said that “a lot” of the allegations were reported “by people engaged in illegal behavior and looking for a bargaining chit.”

    Bratton wrote: “Was there lack of respect by some police officers toward the public? Yes. Was there abuse? Yes. Was there more than in previous years or administrations? I don’t believe so. The rise in complaints was commensurate with the rise in contact.”

  • As ugly as Safir’s handling of the Diallo case was, Bratton’s role in another of the headlined cop-killings of the Giuliani era, the December 1994 choking death of Anthony Baez, was worse. Frank Livoti, the cop eventually convicted of killing Baez after the 29-year-old accidentally hit his squad car with a football, had a track record of nine prior brutality charges, some involving earlier improper choke holds. The federal judge on the Livoti case condemned the NYPD for “letting him remain on the streets knowing a tragedy would occur.” The judge said the department “should have known he was dangerous” and that “senior police officials rejected repeated demands to transfer him.”

    It was Bratton’s top aide, Chief of Department Lou Anemone, who refused the transfer requests, stating in writing that Livoti shouldn’t be moved because of his delegate “status” with the police union. Anemone praised Livoti even after the Baez killing. As Mark Green put it in a March 1997 interview with WNBC’s Gabe Pressman: “This is a quiet crisis that suddenly bursts out when you have a Livoti-Baez tragedy. The mayor ignored it for the longest time, trying to argue that people who criticize police brutality were criticizing all police, which is a lie.”

  • The mayor wasn’t ignoring it alone. As hard as Mark Green might try to duck the real history—in his reports and his campaign—Bill Bratton was right there with him.

    Research: Robbie Chaplick, Jesse Goldstein,

    Laurence Pantin, and Theodore Ross

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