Past and Present Meet in Queens
December 4, 2006
A top official investigating the fatal police shooting of Sean Bell is the same man who blew the whistle on Al Sharpton two decades ago in the case that brought him to national prominence — the “rape” of Tawana Brawley, supposedly by six white men.
The official is Jack Ryan, chief assistant to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who is heading the investigation into Bell’s shooting. Five cops, mistakenly believing there was a gun inside Bell’s car, fired 50 shots, killing him and seriously wounding two of his friends.
Ryan sat with Brown last week in a key meeting in his office with Bell’s relatives, fiancée, and 50 black officials, including Sharpton, who has taken a prominent role in the Bell case.
“It was odd that the two of us were in the same room,” said Ryan. “We have encountered each other over the years. Our relationship is not exactly warm and cuddly, but professional.”
Eighteen years ago, Ryan, then working for Attorney General Robert Abrams, led a state grand jury investigation that determined Brawley’s so-called rape was a "hoax.”
Rather, the grand jury concluded, she had made up the story, fearing her aggressive step-father.
Sharpton and attorneys C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox had defended her, accusing Steven Pagones, a local, white assistant district attorney, of raping her.
In 1998, a civil court jury supported Ryan’s findings, ruling the three had defamed Pagones, and ordering them to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sharpton paid his share of the money but has never apologized to Pagones for his role in the Brawley hoax. Attempts to reach him for this column were unsuccessful.
Of last week’s meeting in Brown’s office, Ryan said of Sharpton, “The two of us acknowledged each other but never said a word.”
“Let me remind you of Amadou Diallo,” Brown reportedly told the group in his office last week, referring to the unarmed African immigrant shot 41 times by four police officers in the Bronx in 1999.
“I am not, nor should any of you be drawn into that trap.”
In the Diallo case, Bronx prosecutor Robert Johnson — one of the few, if not the only, black district attorneys in New York State — quickly convened a grand jury — some felt too quickly — leading to what many felt was an over-reaching indictment that charged the four cops with second degree murder.
Meanwhile, Sharpton led daily demonstrations outside Police Plaza. An appellate court — the same bench Brown had sat on before becoming Queens D.A. — cited excess prejudicial publicity and moved the trial from the Bronx to Albany.
There, a jury acquitted the cops. The night of their acquittal, the presiding judge attended the officers’ celebration.
So far in the Bell shooting, the demonstrations have been relatively mild, and Sharpton — who appears to have more authority than any elected black official — has been relatively restrained.
He has met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, albeit briefly, and has rejected calls for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s dismissal.
The future, however, remains unclear. Jesse Jackson, Sharpton’s rival for attention, turned up in town last week. Bell’s fiancée is to appear on the Larry King show. There is also talk of a citywide boycott.
And given the police department’s inclination to strike out like a wounded animal at any black person suspected to be, or to have information about, the so-called “fourth man” with a gun, who can say in what direction Sharpton — hardly a reliable partner in the past — will turn?
That is to say he doesn’t merely wait until something goes wrong. He waits until people are screaming that something went wrong.
Take his announcement of a blue-ribbon task force to investigate undercover operations following the fatal shooting of Sean Bell.
Contrary to what you’ve read in the media [The Post’s Saturday editorial said Kelly moved “swiftly”], Kelly undertook no investigation — at least publicly — after Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed African immigrant, was shot and killed by an undercover cop in a Chelsea warehouse in 2003.
There, Zongo and police officer Bryan Conroy, dressed as a mailman with no NYPD identification, apparently mistook each other for robbers. When Conroy pulled his gun — to identify himself as a cop, he claimed at his trial — Zongo attempted to grab it, then fled. Conroy pursued, a struggle ensued, and Conroy fatally shot him.
Conroy’s task force was based on Staten Island [as was its confidential informant] and was apparently unfamiliar with the warehouse. The tactical plan had called for him and his team to “tac” up at the 10th precinct with Emergency Service Unit cops, who were to have been the first responders inside the warehouse.
ESU was late in arriving to the precinct. And when the informant called from the warehouse to say that the “buy” of allegedly stolen DVDs was going down, and that if they didn’t arrive within the next ten minutes to forget it, Conroy and the task force left for the warehouse without ESU. The rest is a sad history.
If Kelly convened a panel to investigate that shooting, we, the public, know nothing about it. Sources say the department made tactical changes after Zongo’s shooting but Kelly has never acknowledged them publicly.
As this column has stated time and again, no one, apparently Mayor Mike included, has any idea what goes on inside the NYPD these days. Despite his 2001 campaign pledge to make the department more transparent than under his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani, the NYPD under Kelly is more closed now to scrutiny than even under Giuliani.
In addition, Bloomberg has allowed Kelly to flout the law whenever he pleases.
Until Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez reported it last week, no one outside the NYPD knew that Richard Neri, the cop who accidentally shot black teenager Timothy Stansbury on his rooftop in 2004, had been found guilty in a department trial last May of failing to secure his weapon.
The trial judge recommended a sentence of 30 days lost vacation days and one year’s dismissal probation. Kelly, Gonzalez reported, has taken no action for five months.
One reason no reporter knew about Neri? Earlier this year, the department stopped publishing the weekly schedule of departmental trials.
Last week the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Kelly, protesting his failure to report figures for all stop-and-frisk reports, which according to the Police Reporting Law of 2001, the department is required to file quarterly with the City Council.
The Civil Liberties Union also sought information on the department’s vehicular policies in regard to the Bell shooting. Through a middle man, the group received the information from a high-ranking police official at One Police Plaza. But the official didn’t use his office phone. Instead, he called from a pay phone in the building.
The reason is that police officials are afraid to talk to anyone outside the department. Earlier this year, Kelly began “dumping” their office and cell phones, then placed a “letter of instruction” in the file of a deputy chief, who acknowledged having had a conversation with a reporter.
Another reporter at One Police Plaza said that he had recently telephoned a police official in the building, but did not use his own phone for fear that the call could be traced. He, too, used a pay phone in the building — then wiped off his fingerprints.
The New York Law Enforcement Foundation is headed by Buff-land prince, Reginald Ward, a deputy commissioner of the Mount Vernon police department who hires and fires chiefs at whim.
When Kelly became police commissioner in 2001, he made a display of curbing Buff-land groups that over the years have attached themselves to the department like barnacles to a battleship.
In return for raising money, these groups extract such perks as police badges and parking placards.
Three years ago, Kelly killed The Finest Foundation’s annual Chief’s Night dinner after it advertised a $50,000 “Commissioner’s Package.” Kelly said at the time he was canceling his appearance at the dinner — which cost The Finest its $40,000 down-payment at the Pierre Hotel — because of the implication that access to him could be purchased.
At Reggie’s dinner, Kelly brought with him Chief of Department Joe Esposito, Chief of the Organized Crime Control Bureau, Anthony Izzo [under whose bureau the undercover operation that led to the Bell shooting occurred], and Deputy Commissioner Neldra Zeigler.
The cost of Reggie’s dinner was $350-a-head. This means that access to Kelly, Espo, Izzo and Zeigler was purchased for $49,650 less than at the Finest’s.
And did Espo, Izzo and Zeigler pay for their dinner of shrimp and filet mignon? Or were they comped by Reggie?
If the latter, what perk will Reggie seek in return?
Copyright © 2006 Leonard Levitt