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Messinger on her message

June 23, 1997

Democratic front-runner Ruth Messinger says her first police priority, if elected mayor, would be to return to "community policing."

Messinger is generally viewed as an unreconstructed 1960s liberal, and community policing - begun in New York under Mayor David Dinkins, under whose administation crime rocketed to the highest levels ever - is viewed by many in law enforcement today as another failure of liberalism when it comes to crime. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and ex-police commissioner William Bratton derided and dismantled all community policing strategies. Bratton's tough guy subordinates - in particular First Deputy John Timoney and Deputy Commissioner for Crime Strategies Jack Maple - dismissed it as a concept that coddled criminals and turned cops into social workers.

The department's current view is best summed up by Timoney's successor once removed, First Deputy Commissioner Patrick Kelleher. "Under this academic model," Kelleher testified last week before the city's Office of Collective Bargaining, "the beat officer is expected to reduce crime by somehow eradicating the social conditions that reduce crime - inadequate education, racism, disease, inadequate healthcare, physical deterioration, overcrowding in housing and waves of new immigrants bringing narcotics into the country with them . . . This is not the crime reduction strategy that is employed now . . ."

If espousing community policing weren't bad enough, Messinger favors another policy shunned by Giuliani and today's NYPD - what is known as "early intervention." As liberals do, Messinger actually believes that fetid social conditions are a breeding ground of crime and that providing healthy outlets for kids can reduce it.

Says Messinger: "Every police commander I have talked to in the city over the last ten years when asked what would make the city neighborhoods safer lists programs for young people to do. If every commander sees that as an essential piece of crime fighting, then how can an administration that says it wants to reduce crime, take 300,000 kids out of youth programs and leave out programs where kids are not safe after school. I will see to it that after-school programs in neighborhoods are a part of a comprehensive crime fighting strategy."

But whatever merit Messinger's liberal message contains may be lost to the law enforcement community because of the heavy baggage she carries. None is heavier than her role, as Manhattan borough president, in the 1992 Washington Heights mini-riot following the fatal shooting of Kiko Garcia by Police Officer Michael O'Keefe.

Printable versionMessinger, like Dinkins, appeared to support Garcia, initially portrayed in much of the media as a victim. Dinkins offered to ease tensions by paying for Garcia's funeral expenses. Messinger marched with Garcia's family and supporters in a demonstration viewed at the time as "anti-police." She later issued a statement expressing sympathy for Garcia's family and adding that "the conditions which helped give rise to recent violence continue to fester unabated."

Then, a grand jury investigation determined that Kiko was a low-life drug dealer, who'd tried to pop O'Keefe in a deserted building hallway and that O'Keefe fired in self-defense.

Since then, Messinger has been sanitizing her Washington Heights resume.

She wrote to the commanding officer of the 34th Precicnt, where the incident occurred, praising cops for "the restraint and professionalism demonstrated by the officers of the 34th Precicnt."

She later wrote to O'Keefe, saying she had "long deeply respected the crucial, dangerous and often thankless job performed by you and your fellow officers."

Rather than leading the Garcia march, as newspaper reports had claimed, Messinger wrote that she had walked "side-by-side with Chief of Patrol David Scott seeking to calm the gathering crowd."

No doubt, she was speaking metaphorically. As a chief familiar with the situation put it, "Scott is leading the march because he is in charge. No one marches with the chief. She marches with the crowd and the Garcia family. Not with the chief. It doesn't happen that way."

Still, the Garcia incident seems to have wised her up. Earlier this year, a 16-year-old Manhattan teenager was fatally shot in the back by a police officer. The youth had an extensive record and was carrying a machete at the time. Messinger issued a statement calling for calm, renouncing violence and urging all parties to suspend judgment until a grand jury issued its report.

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© 1997 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.