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Diallo cops' future a campaign issue

February 12, 2001

Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer has become the first, and only, mayoral candidate to demand the firing of the four officers who fatally shot Amadou Diallo.

"They should be shown the door," Ferrer said last week when asked his views over what could be the campaign's hot-button police issue.

"The four officers who shot and killed that young man showed tragically bad judgment and utter disregard for his life," Ferrer added. "The events of Feb. 4, 1999, the response of Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani and ex-police commissioner [Howard] Safir, and that misguided policy of confrontational policing have widened the divide of distrust between the police and communities they serve."

To ensure no ambiguity, Ferrer's spokesman John Melia was asked exactly what Ferrer meant by the term "shown the door."

"It means they should be fired," Melia said.

Ferrer's response followed that of Public Advocate Mark Green, who last week disavowed the remarks of former police commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, whom Green had introduced moments before as a supporter of his mayoral campaign.

Murphy, who served as commissioner in the early 1970s following the Knapp corruption scandal, had suggested in response to this reporter's question that the four Diallo officers-Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy-be sent to "a low-crime precinct, in Staten Island, like the 122nd Precinct."

Although disassociating himself from Murphy's suggestion, Green refused to explain how he himself would treat the officers, saying it would be "improper for a city official to tell the police commissioner what to do in a particular case."

"I would be surprised if they kept their guns and went to a Street Crime Unit," he added.

Comptroller Alan Hevesi and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, the two remaining mayoral hopefuls, were equally ambiguous.

Referring to two of the officers, McMellon and Murphy, who are on the hiring list for the Fire Department, Vallone said: "I am pleased to hear that two of the police officers involved intend to leave the [Police] Department. I support their decision."

Hevesi, criticized by some New Yorkers for not comprehending the seriousness of the Diallo shooting, said: "Based on what I know, I don't think the police officers should be back on the street." He did not explain whether this meant he wanted them fired or placed on desk duty.

In determining what to do with the officers, there are two recent precedents. The first is that of former officer Francis X. Livoti, who was acquitted by a Bronx judge in 1996 of causing the death of Anthony Baez by a chokehold after a confrontation stemming from a touch-football game.

The following year, the Police Department dismissed Livoti, a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association delegate with a dozen unsubstantiated civilian complaints involving physical force, after a departmental trial.

Then-Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced Livoti's dismissal, with Chief of Department Louis Anemone at his side. At a public meeting in the Bronx shortly after Baez's death, Anemone had praised Livoti for "doing the kind of work that the citizenry of the city and certainly this country are looking for." In 1998, Livoti was convicted of federal civil rights violations in Baez's death and is serving 7 years in prison.

The second case is that of Stephen Sullivan, an Emergency Service Unit officer who in 1984 fired two shotgun blasts, killing Eleanor Bumpers during an eviction proceeding from her Bronx apartment. Bumpers, who was mentally disturbed, was said to have attacked an officer with a 10-inch carving knife.

Like Livoti, Sullivan was acquitted by a Bronx judge. The judge was a senior man, specifically selected to try Sullivan and about to retire.

Police Commissioner Ben Ward, however, allowed Sullivan to remain in the department and a year later promoted to detective.

In those bygone days, police commissioners actually ran the department. That Mayor Ed Koch had appointed Ward the city's first black police commissioner made his decision to reinstate Sullivan somewhat more politically palatable.

Even precedents don't make the Diallo decision easier. Bumpers held a knife, perhaps justifying Sullivan's shooting her. Diallo was unarmed.

On the other hand, federal prosecutors have said they will not prosecute the Diallo officers for civil-rights violations as they did with Livoti. Even Giuliani appears daunted by the decision.

The Police Department has turned off its 24-second clock and gone into a four-corner decision-making stall. First there will come a Firearms Review Board investigation. Then a review of tapes and court transcripts. Then formal questioning of the officers. Then a decision on whether or not to try them departmentally. Then setting a trial date.

Police sources say the plan is to string things out to the end of the year when Giuliani's term expires.

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© 2001 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.