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Slaying may play role in election

April 30, 2001

For the third time in the past 12 years, a slaying with racial overtones may determine the city's next mayor.

And at the heart of each incident has been the Rev. Al Sharpton.

In 1989, David Dinkins defeated then-mayor Ed Koch in the Democratic primary. Dinkins' victory followed the unprovoked stabbing of a black teenager, Yussef Hawkins, by white Bensonhurst toughs. Sharpton became the "advisor" to Hawkins' stepfather and was himself stabbed during a demonstration he led.

In 1993, Rudolph Giuliani defeated Dinkins for mayor. His victory followed a gubernatorial report criticizing Dinkins' handling of the Crown Heights riots during which a group of blacks stabbed to death a Hasidic man, Yankel Rosenbaum. The riots followed the accidental death of a black child, Gavin Cato, 7, who was struck by the car of another Hasidic man in a police-escorted caravan. Sharpton became an advocate for the Cato family.

Now, in 2001, we have the Police Department's reinstatement of the four white officers who fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African emigrant. The reinstatement was supposedly based on a recommendation by its firearms-discharge review panel, which the department refuses to release, saying it is "an internal document." Sharpton became an advisor to Diallo's mother and father after leading month-long protests outside Police Plaza.

So far, only one mayoral candidate has demanded the firing of the four officers, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy.

"They should be shown the door," Fernando Ferrer told One Police Plaza on Feb. 12. His rivals, Alan Hevesi, Peter Vallone and Mark Green, have confined themselves to general criticisms of the department, although their rhetoric will, no doubt, escalate as the import of the reinstatement sinks in across the city.

The department's position was summed up privately to Newsday by a top police official: A racially mixed jury found the four not guilty.

The federal government did not indict them. There was "no evil in their hearts." That is, they fired at Diallo because they feared for their lives. If the department did not reinstate them, what message would it be sending other officers?

Well, what message did the department send in February 1997 when it dismissed Francis Livoti, who four months earlier was acquitted of the death of Anthony Baez? It was not until a year later that the federal government indicted Livoti for violating Baez's civil rights.

Now, let's examine the reinstatement of the Diallo Four and the message it sends to black New Yorkers. No less than the New York Post, the mayor's most constant supporter, editorialized Friday: "The department's review merely analyzes the minute-by-minute actions of the four cops that night.

"It doesn't assess the decisions in the days and weeks beforehand up the NYPD chain of command ... The shooting didn't happen solely because of tactical mistakes on one specific night. It was a series of ill-conceived steps made at One Police Plaza."

Those steps were taken by former commissioner Howard Safir, whom Giuliani has called "the greatest commissioner in the history of the city." Criticism of the Diallo cops means criticism of Safir means criticism of Giuliani.

This column has spelled it out before and will do so again: The four officers came from the Street Crime Unit, which Safir tripled over the protests of its commander, Deputy Inspector Richard Savage, who resigned over the expansion.

Savage felt the rapid expansion would allow officers into the unit who did not belong. Savage liked to say his officers had a sixth sense about who on the street was or was not carrying a gun. One of his proudest boasts was that Street Crime officers regularly tossed suspected gunmen without firing a shot.

Now let's look at the night of Feb. 4, 1999, when the four Diallo officers headed out together for the Bronx. They were all rookies to the unit. They had no supervisor. They did not know the Bronx or the neighborhood they were patrolling.

According to Sean Carroll's trial testimony, he saw a man loitering in a doorway. He ordered the car to back up, and he jumped out. He thought the man might be a rapist, a push-in robber, a kidnapper. He saw him reach for a wallet and mistook it for a gun. He and McMellon, his partner, began firing. In short, Carroll's every instinct failed him.

Lastly, we turn to police commissioner Bernard Kerik. In reinstating the four officers, he has lost his credibility to black New Yorkers, whose support he has courted for the past eight months. His message to all New Yorkers is that his first loyalty is to the mayor. That may be his legacy.

Kerik's spokesman Tom Antenen declined to say whether Giuliani has forbidden Kerik to meet or even speak to Sharpton. But if history is a guide, Sharpton may soon be speaking to him.

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© 2001 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.