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PBA's Sound, Fury Signifies Not Much

February 13, 2004

He did what he had to do. But it may be less than meets the eye.

That was what two former top Police Department officials said about Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch, who called for a no-confidence vote against Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Lynch, like many others across the law enforcement spectrum, continue to maintain that Kelly was wrong in announcing within 12 hours that the shooting of Timothy Stansbury, an unarmed black teenager, by Officer Richard Neri appeared to be unjustified based on what he knew at the time.

Kelly's statement "leaves the impression he [Neri] did not act reasonably, and that it was wrong and criminal," said a member of the law enforcement community outside the Police Department. "The word 'unjustified' has a meaning in the penal law. Kelly knows that. While Kelly may have raised his standing with blacks, among the police, there is a feeling of betrayal."

Both former Police Department officials, who spoke to Newsday on condition of anonymity, echoed that sentiment, saying the PBA's no-confidence vote was necessary for Lynch but would have little or no effect on the department or public.

"He had to do what he did," one of the two officials said of Lynch. "He is clearly playing to his own membership, but he does have a point of view he wants to get across to the general public."

Expressing the views of many people in law enforcement interviewed by this reporter, the official added, "Kelly came to a premature judgment."

"Kelly was wrong," the second former police official said. "You can lay out the facts as you know them. You can visit the parents and attend the funeral. But there are procedures in place. You cannot comment until you have spoken to the police officer and if you know the case is going to grand jury.

"Just look how long the grand jury is taking. If this was so open and shut, the indictment should have come down the next day. Kelly didn't need to do this. He already has tremendous credibility within the black community."

But other than venting, both officials agreed that the PBA was powerless in taking action either against the department or against Kelly.

"What are they going to do?" said the first official, who noted that after the PBA issued a no-confidence vote against then-Commissioner Howard Safir in 1999, its members took no further action.

"But there is a lot of rage out there," the second official said. "You might see picketing or a large turnout of officers in Brooklyn if the grand jury indicts."

He mentioned that two decades ago, tens of thousands of officers demonstrated outside the Bronx County courthouse during the trial of Officer Stephen Sullivan, who shot to death Eleanor Bumpers, a black grandmother who lunged at cops with a knife as they entered her apartment during an eviction proceeding.

"There was rage directed against Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola that never went away," the official said. "The cops felt the indictment was wrong. These become highly emotional issues. The cops realize this shooting was an accident and not intentional. Every cop is thinking, 'It could happen to me.'"

A Break for Dante. Strange as it seems, sometimes, it actually pays to be shot by a cop.

Take the case of Dante Johnson, shot in the Bronx in May 1999 by Officer Mark Conway, who was driving his patrol car and switching his gun to his other hand at the same time.

Conway was convicted of negligent assault, and Johnson, who underwent several surgeries for his injuries, sued the city for $35 million. The suit is pending.

Then, in May 2003, Johnson and three others hijacked a car at gunpoint in Manhattan. Arrested in the car two days later in the Bronx with a gun in his possession, Johnson was taken to the 10th Precinct station house, where he jumped out a third-floor window, trying to escape. He was apprehended and pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery.

Last month, a deal was struck with the Manhattan district attorney's office on his sentencing.

Instead of jail time, Johnson is to be sent to a work program in Vermont for three years, and if he is good, he will be allowed to withdraw his plea and instead plead guilty to the lesser charge of attempted robbery. The district attorney will then recommend he be given probation.

Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, said, "We are not going to comment on who made the decision. It was a decision made by the office."

The reason for the lenient sentence, she said, "is that he went through 13 surgeries. He was very seriously injured, and we considered that along with other factors."

Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, where he was arrested with a gun, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Robert Johnson said his office was considering the same sentence for Johnson in their case.

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© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.