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In tough times, Ward survived

June 17, 2002

From the day Mayor Edward I. Koch announced Benjamin Ward's appointment as the city's first black police commissioner through the six years he served, Ward's tenure was defined by one word - race.

Koch, who had infuriated black New Yorkers and endured a congressional sub-committee hearing on police brutality, selected Ward over First Deputy Patrick J. Murphy, the professional choice. Koch's explanation, which he has uttered to this day, even at Ward's funeral, that he did not select Ward because he was black, defies the truth.

The knock on Ward, which turned out to have been a lie, was that he had ordered the release of a dozen suspects from a Harlem mosque after a police officer had been fatally shot there a decade before. As it turned out, it wasn't Ward who had ordered the suspects released but former Chief of Detectives Al Seedman.

The information was in a secret police file, unearthed by this newspaper, known as the "blue book," which was described in a grand jury report as having been "circulated only among the upper ranks of the department."

Tracked down to Alexander's department store where he was director of security, Seedman owned up to having released the mosque suspects. Asked why he'd never come forward and allowed Ward to take the heat over the years, he answered, "What good would it have done?"

So began the specter of an imposing, articulate black man (Ward scored third out of 78,000 applicants who took the police exam, and while working three jobs graduated in the top 1 percent of his law school class) wreaking fear and havoc over his white chiefs and just about anyone else with whom he dealt.

He disappeared for three days during the Palm Sunday massacre in 1984, which city hall covered up. He supported Stephen Sullivan, a white officer who shot a black grandmother, Eleanor Bumpers, in her Harlem apartment. He infuriated black New Yorkers when he remarked upon "our dirty little secret" - a reference to the preponderance of violent crime committed by young black males. He so intimidated Dan Sullivan, the chief who ran the Internal Affairs Bureau, that to avoid Ward's wrath, Sullivan created a "tickler" file into which allegations of systemic corruption were buried. That led to the department's last corruption scandal.

What was Ward's legacy? Perhaps that as the department's first black commissioner, he survived.

The New IAB. Anyone naive enough to believe the stated purpose of the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau is to catch crooked cops should have attended John Moakley's retirement dinner last week. "I spent most of my time in IAB trying to protect the image of the department and the good cops who get in trouble," said Moakley, a veteran chief who is regarded as a straight shooter.

Former First Deputy Patrick Kelleher, who headed IAB a decade ago and who served as toastmaster, said Moakley "saved so many cops' lives. I mean bosses. He protected good cops."

Nobody will be shocked to learn that IAB has always been one of the least desirable assignments in the department, where the vaunted quality is loyalty. Retired Deputy Chief Ray Powers, another speaker at Moakley's dinner, testified during the trial of the four officers charged in the attack on Abner Louima that he had 573 days left in his assignment in IAB and he was counting them one by one. Or as Moakley put it: "Nobody volunteered to come here. I thought I'd spend only a couple of years, then move on. But it became my most fulfilling assignment."

This is not to suggest that either Moakley or Kelleher shirked their duties. Kelleher headed an investigation into drunken cops who terrorized guests at a Washington hotel during a police memorial in 1995 and so exhausted himself he ended up in the hospital.

One of the guests at Moakley's dinner was Acting Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad, who is still pursuing officers who allegedly tried to cover up the attack on Louima. Moakley was the department's point man in that investigation.

Still, his and Kelleher's attitudes appear to reflect a generation gap from the era of such tough nuts as Sydney Cooper and John Guido, who ran the bureau (it was a division then) during and after the Knapp corruption scandal of the 1970s. Guido was so protective of Internal Affairs as a separate unit that he refused to hire cops who owned tuxedos because he didn't want them attending retirement dinners.

And if you still don't think things have changed since the old days, check out the fashions at Moakley's dinner. The guys wore tuxes and IAB's female detectives wore strapless dresses and sported tattoos on their shoulders. A top IAB operative has even publicly acknowledged having her belly-button pierced with diamond studs.

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© 2002 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.