Rare crack in blue wall
January 6, 2003
Responding to four fatal shootings of civilians by police in the first two days of the new year, Ray Kelly revealed a side of himself that he has not shown since becoming police commissioner.
Kelly spent about 60 minutes Friday defending the Police Department's actions in each of the shootings - three involving black males, the other involving a white male. In doing so, he projected two qualities lacking in some past commissioners: authority and credibility.
"He spoke the most powerful words: 'The public has the right to know,'" police Lt. Eric Adams, who heads 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said of Kelly's news conference at One Police Plaza on Friday. "Those words are foreign to police departments. He has set the tone for how the Police Department must now start dealing with and responding to shootings."
A former top police official who asked for anonymity said that as far as he can remember, it has been "a very long time" since the department responded with such a detailed explanation."
"It's been a long time since the department felt an obligation to explain to the public the details of a shooting," the official said. "People could draw the wrong conclusions if the facts are not given.
"When you don't say anything, they assume the cops are covering something up," the official said. "If you don't give it some kind of context, people will use the silence to exploit the event and cop-bash."
Kelly knows the price of silence, and his openness is in contrast to the policies of the Giuliani administration. Under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the department was confrontational in its responses not just to shootings but to everything.
"The attitude," the former police official said, "was, 'Why do we have to tell you anything?'"
Deaf to the outcry over the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo, then-Police Commissioner Howard Safir left the city that weekend in February 1999 for a police convention in Los Angeles. The next month, he was spotted on television at the Oscars in Hollywood on the eve of a City Council hearing, and he was forced to take the red-eye back to New York to testify.
Although Kelly's spokesman Michael O'Looney said Kelly's action last week was consistent with his style of meeting each crisis head-on, Kelly was bobbing and weaving just a month ago in his response to the Central Park jogger case.
After Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau recommended that charges against the five Harlem teenagers convicted in the case be dismissed, Kelly equivocated in defending the department from criticism that detectives had coerced confessions from the teenagers.
"The district attorney's report has neither exonerated the defendants nor found collusion or coercion on the part of the police," he said in a statement.
Although Kelly conducted an internal investigation on the matter last fall that called the district attorney's evidence at the trial a decade ago "useless," he never released the report, which was obtained by Newsday.
More than one department official has said privately that Kelly's waffling on the jogger case cost the department an opportunity to present its side to the public.
"There is only a small window of opportunity," one department official said. "The department got hosed."
Kelly has commissioned a second internal report, but he has refused to say whether that one will be made public.
A Second Secret. When he was police commissioner in the 1980s, Ben Ward referred to crime committed by blacks against blacks as "our dirty little secret."
Last week, after police fatally shot a man who was firing a gun in the air and exchanged shots with another, Adams used the term to describe what the media has called "celebratory shootings."
"It is a sick tradition that while one part of the city celebrates with champagne, people in public housing projects know that when midnight strikes on New Year's Eve, you better be on the floor because there will be shooting," Adams said.
"This form of shooting up in the air and saying it is an innocent act is not innocent at all," he said. "In Fort Greene Park, there is a large hill that you can look out over Brooklyn. Every New Year's Eve you see so much gunfire you think you are in Beirut. And we in the black community are condoning it by not talking about it.
"The black community can turn a corner here so that we do not go back to the 1980s, when crime wreaked havoc on our communities."
© 2003 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.