Thirty years ago, I spent the last Friday night in July outside a funeral home in East New York where Mayor David Dinkins was paying his respects to the family of a 9-year-old girl who was shot to death earlier in the week while asleep in their car.
It wasn't even the most heart-wrenching killing of a child that week in that Brooklyn neighborhood. Three days before the wake, on July 24, 1990, 1-year-old Yaritimi Fruto was struck by a bullet intended for her father as he drove through East New York on his way to turn himself in to serve a prison term on a gun charge. He was killed instantly; Yaritimi died of her wound two days later. That also happened to be the day that 3-year-old Ben Williams, sleeping on his family's couch, was struck by one at at least 18 bullets fired through the door of his family's apartment. A drug-dealing older brother was apparently the target.
My bureau chief at the New York Post sent me to the Ponce Funeral Home to see whether Mr. Dinkins would say anything remarkable or something dramatic would happen at the wake for 9-year-old Veronica Corrales, who was returning from a trip to Great Adventure when a bullet intended for someone on the street invaded her family's car. Mr. Dinkins was respectful while lamenting the terrible toll gun violence was taking in the city that summer, and I called in a few details to the Post's city desk, then got in my car for a traffic-snarled drive to my aunt and uncle's home to get the Jersey Shore traffic out of the way rather than stuck in it the next morning.
The stop-and-go procession through Brooklyn and Staten Island before encountering more brake lights lining the Garden State Parkway seemed tolerable for reasons that went beyond having the Met and Yankee games to switch between on the car radio. The detour to the funeral home couldn't help but fix my mind on the murders of all three children, in a sharper way than the 2,245 homicides in the city that year would, and made it impossible to regard a series of traffic jams as consequential.
A Painful Reminder Grows in Brooklyn
There was a sense of deja vu July 12, when a humid Sunday night burst into tragedy at a barbecue in Bedford-Stuyvesant after two men fired into the crowd and fatally struck 1-year-old Davell Gardner.
There are those who claim that it was the fatal stabbing of a Utah tourist inside the 7th Ave. subway station in Manhattan while trying to shield his mother from a gang of robbers later that summer that became the impetus for the major build-up of the NYPD under the "Safe Streets, Safe City" bill that Mayor Dinkins and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone steered to passage in the State Legislature in February 1991.
I never believed it; terrible as that crime was, it made the cover of Time Magazine because the killing of a tourist in Midtown resonated in the rest of the country. The murders of three children in such a short period of time by bullets intended for somebody else seemed not only a truer reflection of how far out of control life had become in the city's poorer neighborhoods (mothers were putting their children to sleep in bathtubs to try to shield them from stray shots), it figured to have particular resonance for the city's first African-American Mayor.
Bill de Blasio, whose duties in the Dinkins administration included acting as a community liaison for Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, often has difficulty expressing anger even over outrageous killings. The morning after, he called Davell's death "horrifying" and "just so painful," but that was the extent of his venting. And two days later, as scheduled, he signed into law a package of City Council bills that included criminal penalties for cops if in subduing a suspect they caused compression of his diaphragm. That was an aspect of the chokehold bill that he previously expressed qualms about.
By the time he put aside those misgivings during a Bronx ceremony, the steady stream of shootings on New York's streets had bled into Monday and Tuesday night—the kind of violence that evoked memories of the early 1990s. There was nothing magical about July 15 that compelled Mr. de Blasio to approve the entire package; he could have turned back that piece of legislation, which police-union leaders said made it particularly unlikely their members would engage in hand-to-hand combat with criminals due to concerns that they could wind up being prosecuted.
Factor in Garner Death
The concerns of those pushing the bill weren't unfounded. While the chokehold used by Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was immortalized by the cellphone video of his takedown of Eric Garner, another cop's laying across the fallen man's back was believed to have further restricted his breathing. But the fever that afflicted the Council in the closing days of its session—which led it to push through that bill even though it may be superseded by state legislation enacted by Governor Cuomo last month—had broken by Wednesday.
There were a confluence of reasons, from the childish and menacing behavior some of the "defund the NYPD" advocates turned against Council Members for not going far enough with their budget cuts, to the likely realization, after they voted to have School Safety Agents transferred from police jurisdiction to the control of the Department of Education but discovered it wouldn't happen until September 2021, that maybe those responsible had done students a favor not counting on DOE to quickly master a task it failed so miserably back in the 1990s.
And it may have occurred to some Council Members that their constituents weren't primarily the ones who marched through city streets for much of June and then camped out in City Hall Park, but rather people who lived in neighborhoods where crime was a concern even in good times. While the murder rate seemed unlikely to return to 1990 levels, a whiff of the bad old days could be detected in July's heat.
But Mr. de Blasio has turned in so many different directions on policing in recent months that he may have decided that sending the bill back to the Council for further consideration would cause him to lose what little face he retains with his longtime boosters on the left.
Game Plan Meets Reality
On the other hand, he has less to lose than some other officials crowded into that corner, since it's unthinkable that there's a run for some other office in his future. Yet just like Corey Johnson and Scott Stringer and Jumaane Williams—all possible candidates to succeed him—he has given the impression of a basketball coach determined to stick to his pre-game strategy even though it has placed his team down 20 points at halftime.
And looked at in that light, it's not hard to see those officials and a few others who were unwilling to make adjustments as their original ideas crumbled as the political equivalent of the Knicks.
The unsettling rise in shootings has coincided with the NYPD's disbanding of its anti-crime units June 15 out of concern that some cops assigned to them were too aggressive. This couldn't be chalked up simply to a couple of officers going out of control, since aggression had been a valued commodity in the unit, for which one mission was to take guns away from people who weren't inclined to be submissive.
The notion that cops aren't working as hard because they hope a spike in crime will cause a backlash against the Mayor and other elected officials is ridiculous, since slacking off would potentially put them in greater danger. The possibility that they are not wading into physical confrontations, or intervening in situations that might turn physical, out of concern that they will wind up facing severe disciplinary penalties is, however, plausible.
The day before the Mayor signed the Council package into law, the Police Benevolent Association ran a full-page ad in The Post that addressed the Mayor, Council Speaker Johnson, Governor Cuomo, legislative leaders, all members of the Council and Legislature, and the city's five District Attorneys, citing a dozen actions they had taken that made cops' jobs harder.
It went on to state, "Now that the violence on our streets has spiraled out of control, you want to blame us for that, too." And in larger type, with the first word of each sentence underlined, it concluded, "You make the laws. You set the policies. You are responsible for the results."
The two most-interesting accusations were the last and the first. The final one stated, "You created an atmosphere of hatred and disrespect toward police officers and criminals are taking full advantage." What was particularly provocative about that one was that among its targets was the Governor, while omitted from the list of suspects was State Attorney General Letitia James, whose investigation into the protests and conclusions about how to remedy the distrust between minority communities and cops was conspicuously one-sided. It raised the question of whether the union believed the Governor had orchestrated the report, or just wanted to return the disrespect to Ms. James by not mentioning her.
The first item on the list was, "You blamed police officers on the street for your quota-driven stop, question and frisk policies."
This claim was especially intriguing because no one on the union's list of defendants really fit the description, and only Mr. Cuomo held a position of real power at the time that stop-and-frisk spiraled out of control. The real culprit for that was former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his accomplice—if you believed he was in on the scam rather than being the prime patsy of it—ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Mr. Bloomberg was hooked on data, and Mr. Kelly was able to supply it through what the PBA characterized as "quota-driven" stops. The three-term Mayor also liked to brag about doing more with less, and as the NYPD lost 6,000 officers from its peak at the end of Rudy Giuliani's mayoralty in 2001, he could boast that it was continuing to drive down crime.
An Artificial Substitute
When Mr. Kelly was pressed, after stops jumped from 97,000 during their first year together in 2002 to 685,000 by 2011, about why they should have skyrocketed while the drop in crime suggested there was less need for them, he pointed to the personnel decline and implied that increased stop-and-frisks were needed to compensate.
But when he triggered an abrupt decline in the number of stops in early 2012 with a memo to cops instructing them to focus on quality rather than quantity, crime plummeted further, and the trend continued when Mr. de Blasio became Mayor even as they were dialed back more. This suggested that the ratcheting-up of the tactic was a ruse at best, and a hindrance to real crime-fighting at worst.
During the stop-and-frisk trial that would end with U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruling in August 2013 that the NYPD's use of the tactic had violated the Constitution, then-Chief of Department Joe Esposito testified that it was necessary to have "goals" required of patrol cops because about 10 percent of them were too lazy to get out of their cars if not compelled.
But Mike Bosak, a retired Sergeant from the old school and unofficial NYPD historian, during an interview in early 2012 explained why this claim was a steaming crock. Cops who were lazy weren't going to confront anyone who might give them trouble by resisting a search or running, he said. They would look for "easy" stops: people who weren't doing anything wrong and could quickly be sent on their way without fussing, fighting or fleeing. Forcing them to meet quotas, Mr. Bosak said, had one added drawback: it tended to alienate people who were stopped for no reason other than the color of their skin.
PBA President Pat Lynch knew this, and the union provided confirmation that Mr. Kelly had closed the floodgates on the stops by issuing the memo that effectively told officers they no longer had to meet quotas to avoid negative personnel action. But neither he nor his fellow police-union leaders confronted the Mayor or the NYPD as directly as his predecessor, James Savage, had in 1999 when he criticized Mr. Giuliani for deploying policing tactics in minority communities that he called a "blueprint for tyranny," or then-Detectives' Endowment Association President Tom Scotto, who in 2000 accused the then-Mayor of having created a "toxic" atmosphere for Detectives looking for community cooperation.
In fact, the PBA, notwithstanding its tacit objections to stop-and-frisk as a dubious strategy that increased pressure on its members with the quotas while also making their relationships in those neighborhoods unnecessarily adversarial, sought to continue the appeal of Judge Scheindlin's decision filed by the Bloomberg administration when Mr. de Blasio opted to drop it in 2014, soon after he took office.
That September, after the union had already butted heads with the new Mayor over the Garner case, Mr. Lynch explained its push along with other police unions to keep the appeal going by stating, "The point of our challenge is to allow our members who protect everyone in this city regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation, to have a voice in the discussion of operational changes that will directly impact us and the work that we do."
A rough translation of that position was that the union had tolerated stop-and-frisk despite the Constitutional violations and ways in which it could negatively affect its members under Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly, but it was concerned that giving Mr. de Blasio the power to dispense with the tactic completely was a dicier proposition. Whether that was because of what might happen or due to it being more politically palatable to take on the new Mayor with his anti-cop reputation as opposed to calling out Mr. Bloomberg—who had proved he was not big on civil liberties if they got in the way of accomplishing things for the city—is ripe for conjecture.
When Mr. de Blasio was asked earlier this month if he worried that continued outbreaks of violence might create a public clamor for greater use of stop-and-frisk, he flatly ruled that out, saying it was a racist policy and the city would not return to it. This actually was a mischaracterization: Judge Scheindlin in her decision had noted the 1968 Supreme Court ruling setting ground rules for stop-and-frisk, but concluded that the city under Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly routinely violated them.
When I asked her this month whether she thought an increase in stops done properly could be an effective tactic, she demurred, pointing out that over an extended period only 5 percent of them had resulted in gun seizures.
Key Detail Missing
But that analysis brushed past an important detail: those numbers were compiled at a time when quotas led the number of stops to be wildly inflated. The fewer stops conducted based on the criterion of reasonable suspicion that someone had either just committed a crime or was about to, the fewer cases in which the person stopped was likely to be carrying a gun.
The old Street Crime Unit was very effective in taking guns off the street until Mr. Giuliani ignored the advice of its commander and decided to triple its size, without the kind of careful screening of applicants that made it a success. That paved the way for the February 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo by four cops working together for the first time who mistook him for a rape suspect. The outcry over that horrendous mistake—much of it expressed in daily demonstrations outside Police Headquarters aimed at the Mayor—was the beginning of the end of the SCU.
This is the problem that makes solutions elusive: Mayors likely to back cops without questioning how they're keeping the city safe often allow for excesses that swing the pendulum in the wrong direction and bring cries for reform. But those like Mr. de Blasio who lack the political courage to stand up for the cops when those howling for change either don't know how to achieve it or don't care as long as it zings the NYPD can be equally incapable of striking the right balance.
And so it was fitting, if not altogether surprising, that less than a week before the Mayor signed the chokehold/diaphragm-compression bill, Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins remembered how to make a useful contribution to the public dialogue by circulating a video of a known gang member who during a confrontation with a cop got the officer in a chokehold on the ground and was cheered on by the sort of crowd most city residents wouldn't want for neighbors.
Bridge of Revelations
As the shootings piled up in Brooklyn and The Bronx (aside from the murder of the 1-year-old, the only instance that cut through the clutter involved the shooting of five people in three separate incidents in Canarsie, all committed, apparently, by people in the same white car), a group of ministers and civic activists in Brooklyn voiced their support for the police with Mr. Mullins alongside them.
A day later, they held a march from Cadman Plaza Park over the Brooklyn Bridge, bound for City Hall. They were met on the bridge by counter-protesters, apparently from the Abolish the NYPD contingent. When top NYPD officials including Chief of Department Terence Monahan, tried to supervise the arrest of one counter-protester on the roadway, one of his companions who was on the pedestrian walkway swung a cane down at them, opening a gash in the head of one cop. Another had his face bloodied, and Chief Monahan suffered a hand injury.
It was hard to get past the irony that the scuffle broke out because the counter-demonstrators were trying to prevent the ministers and activists from peacefully protesting. But perhaps they did a favor for the elected officials who had aligned with them in their zeal to take a deep bite out of the NYPD's budget: they offered a flesh-and-blood glimpse of the perils, especially politically, that accompany going steadily more radical, in the process losing all sense of proportion.
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