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Sweeping away street marches

February 10, 2003

Without announcement or explanation, the Police Department since the fall of 2002 has been denying all permits for protest marches in Manhattan.

Deputy Commissioner Michael O'Looney confirmed Friday that this was, in fact, the department's practice after he was asked about it by Newsday.

After conferring with Deputy Chief Bruce Smolka, the executive officer of Patrol Borough Manhattan South, O'Looney attributed the ban to "security" in light of post-9/11 terrorist threats.

The ban came to light in a federal court hearing Friday in which a coalition protesting a possible war against Iraq sought permission to march past the United Nations on Saturday. The department has refused to issue a permit for the march.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones is expected to rule on the matter today.

Christopher Dunn, a New York Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the coalition, United for Peace and Justice, said he learned of the ban from a deposition by Smolka's boss, Assistant Chief Michael Esposito, the commanding officer of Manhattan South.

"The final important fact - and one that only came to light in a deposition of Chief Esposito," Dunn said outside of court, "is that the NYPD in the fall of 2002 adopted a blanket policy of not issuing permits for protest marches."

Esposito, who testified at the hearing, said that since last fall the department has not issued a single permit for a protest march anywhere in Manhattan south of 59th Street.

Esposito added that in the past he had had authority to approve marches of fewer than 1,000 people, but that authority has been placed in the hands of higher-ups, though whether this is due to security concerns or to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's penchant for controlling all aspects of the department remains unclear.

Esposito also testified that he had offered an alternative plan for Saturday's planned protest, allowing a march north on Third Avenue to 47th Street, then east to an assembly point near the UN. But that plan, he said, was rejected by Chief of Department Joseph Esposito because, he said, the UN was considered a "sensitive" area.

The department, however, has offered an alternative - allowing the protesters to congregate in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on 47th Street between First and Second avenues, a block from the UN, with the overflow backing up along First Avenue north of 49th Street.

But the protesters argue that by keeping them away from the UN, their message will be diluted.

"A central part of the Feb. 15 event is to convey a message to the United Nations about opposition to any war against Iraq," the coalition's complaint reads. The group says it expects 100,000 people to turn out.

To understand how tricky the issue is in this time of terrorism - both to the protesters and the department - consider this editorial from Feb. 6 in the New York Sun, a newspaper whose views can be charitably described as right of center:

"Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly are doing the people of New York and the people of Iraq a great service by delaying and obstructing the anti-war protest planned for Feb. 15. The longer they delay in granting the protesters a permit, the less time the organizers have to get their turnout organized and the smaller the crowd is likely to be...[T]he smaller the crowd, the more likely that President Bush will proceed with his plans to liberate Iraq."

Buff-land notes. Finest Foundation president Hank Seiden, whose annual Chief's Night dinner at the Hotel Pierre was canceled after Kelly forbade officers to attend, is meeting this week with First Deputy Commissioner George Grasso - perhaps to chart the Finest's future role with the department.

Kelly cited the appearance of impropriety after he learned that the dinner advertised a $50,000 "Commissioner's Package," which granted donors the opportunity to sit with "high-ranking law enforcement officials."

Next month another nonprofit group that raises money for the NYPD, the Police Foundation, hosts its annual dinner at One Police Plaza. It, too, has a $50,000 package but it is called a "Gold Circle" table. It also has a "Silver Circle" table for $35,000, a "Vice Chair's Circle" table for $25,000 and a "Patron's Circle" table for $10,000.

Does that mean that chiefs will not be permitted to sit at those tables with donors? Does it also mean that any officer attending will pay for himself, rather than being comped by the foundation?

The prize. Add the names of three-star chiefs, Charles Campisi of Internal Affairs and Mike Scagnelli of Transportation, to the Chief of Detectives sweepstakes.

Campisi has been interviewed by Kelly about the job. Scagnelli has not.

Throw in Deputy Chief Robert Gianelli, executive officer to the outgoing Chief of Detectives Bill Allee. Gianelli was the department's point man in its reinvestigation of the Central Park jogger case.

Disclaimer: The above is purely speculative. We have no pipeline into Kelly's mind.

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© 2003 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.