News & Politics

Black Cop Shot by White Officer in 1994, First Thought: “Not Again.”

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When Desmond Robinson heard that white police officers had shot a black off-duty officer in Harlem, he woke his son and told him about it.

The shooting of Officer Omar Edwards last night took Robinson all the way back to Aug. 22, 1994 when he was a black police officer, with 10 years on the job, who was shot four times in the back by a white police officer on a midtown subway platform. Robinson was working undercover at the time. The case shook the Police Department and the mayor’s office, and sparked a huge racial outcry, which lingered for months and cast a pall over the tenure of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Robinson’s shooter, Peter Del Debbio, was convicted of second-degree assault in 1996. (Giuliani slammed the guilty verdict, saying he was “very, very disturbed.”) Robinson won a legal settlement from the city.

“I explained to my son that another African-American officer had been shot under similar circumstances to mine,” Robinson tells the Voice this afternoon…

Robinson is now 45 years old, married, with three kids, ages 5, 10 and
18. He lives outside of Miami. He helps run a company, which provides
security to merchant vessels. He still suffers from nerve damage in his
left leg from the shooting, but overall, he says, life is good.

“There’s not much more that I can ask for myself, except maybe if I win the lottery,” he says.

The
intervening years, however, have done little to dampen Robinson’s
strong feelings about how the Police Department handles this incidents,
and how the NYPD could go a long way toward preventing them.

“My
initial reaction was ‘not again’,” he says. “It’s 15 years later. It’s
a terrible thing for this to happen again. It’s not like you see white
officers shooting white officers, or even African-American officers
shooting white officers.”

The key to stopping incidents like
this is training, he says. “Officers should be retrained on a regular
basis on the policy of taking cover and shouting ‘Police! Don’t move!’
If that was done, we wouldn’t have this happening as often. But the
NYPD is still stuck in the 20th Century, not the 21st Century.”

The
underlying assumption should also be addressed, he says. “This is 2009
and everything has changed,” he says. “There are a lot of black
officers in a lot of law enforcement agencies in New York. So, you
can’t see an African-American with a weapon, and assume that he’s a
criminal. There are ways to change that mindset, but I guess it’s just
not in the budget.”

“The officer has to challenge the person in
front of him,” Robinson says. “If you see a person with a weapon, the
onus is on you to challenge him.”

A last footnote to the
Robinson story: Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Giuliani
famously arranged for Del Debbio to visit Robinson in the hospital in a
meeting that was then covered lavishly in the Daily News. The
photo-op was essentially an attempt at dampening the bruised racial
relationships around the city that erupted after the shooting.

But
Robinson didn’t appreciate being used like that. “I have no good
thoughts about that,” he says. “By setting that up, the mayor at the
time basically ruined any hope that Del Debbio and I could eventually
have a friendship.”