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Don't Count Out Conyers

May 5, 2008

Keep your eyes on three players. The interplay between them could become the next round of the Sean Bell saga.

The first, of course, is the Rev. Al Sharpton, who as usual is exploiting a fatal police shooting.

The second is Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Unlike his pronouncements about terrorism or the FBI, he is keeping silent, citing his role in disciplining the cops involved in Bell’s shooting.

The third man is less known to New Yorkers. He is House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, who toured the Bell crime scene last week. If past is prologue, the Michigan Democrat could cause a lot of trouble, for the city’s power structure — specifically for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly.

Twenty-five years ago, Conyers came to New York to hold public hearings on police brutality. Contrary to a recent editorial in the Post, which stated that “nothing much” resulted, Conyers’ hearings led to the appointment of the city’s first black police commissioner, Benjamin Ward.

Back then, race relations in this burg were its normal mess, with a dash of anti-Semitism thrown in from the black side, directed at Mayor Ed Koch.

As always, the police were in the middle. Prompted by two black pastors, the Revs. Calvin Butts and Herbert Daughtry, Conyers held a daylong hearing in the summer of 1983 in Harlem. He returned for more hearings in Brooklyn that fall.

Exacerbating racial tensions was the death in police custody that September of another black male, 25-year-old Michael Stewart, who lapsed into a coma after Transit Police arrested him for scrawling graffiti at the Union Square subway station. Two years later, six white transit cops went on trial for his murder. As you might have guessed, they were acquitted.

Meanwhile, a feisty Koch testified at the Conyers hearings, together with his first-rate Police Commissioner Robert McGuire. The hearings culminated with then Patrolman’s Benevolent Association President Phil Caruso stalking out because of Conyers’ pointed questions of him.

Koch subsequently announced he would appoint Ward to succeed McGuire when he retired at the end of the year. He acknowledged that race had played a role in his decision to pass over McGuire’s logical successor, the department’s First Deputy Patrick J. Murphy, who was white.

Not that Ward’s appointment proved a panacea for the city’s racial problems. Rather, it provided political cover for a besieged white mayor.

When the next fatal police shooting occurred, that of black grandmother Eleanor Bumpers during an eviction proceeding from her apartment, Ward backed the white cop who shot her, Stephen Sullivan. He pointed out that Bumpers had attacked the officers with a 10-inch kitchen knife. In court, Sullivan was acquitted

. Meanwhile, Ward authored that famous phrase, “our dirty little secret,” as an acknowledgement that black-on-black crime was as serious a problem as police brutality.

Fourteen years after that hearing, following the sodomizing of Abner Louima in 1997, Conyers returned to New York with seven Congressmen to again hold public hearings.

But Mayor Rudy Giuliani routed them and the hearings faltered. In the middle of them, at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, someone named Asia Shakur spouted something about the “Semitic” media and “Jews … beating brothers to death.”

Giuliani seized on this remark, linking Shakur to the late, great rabble-rouser Sonny Carson and pointing out that neither Conyers nor the other Congressmen had uttered a word of protest.

“To have members of Congress sit there and have a witness say that Jews beat blacks and not object to it,” Giuliani declared, “says to me … that members of Congress were too afraid to stand up to anti-Semitism.”

Blaming each other, the congressmen shuffled back to Washington.

Now let’s suppose Conyers — who couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday at his Washington office — returns to New York to hold hearings in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting.

First, will hapless Mayor Michael Bloomberg testify? Although his first reaction to the shooting was one of shock at the number of 50 bullets fired, he, in his two terms as mayor, abdicated all responsibility for the police department to Kelly.

We’re beyond believing that the appointment of a black police commissioner is a solution to the city’s racial problems. In fact Kelly, who likes to say he is a Ward protégé, has as much street cred as any black commissioner.

The city’s first black mayor David Dinkins appointed him to his first term. Moreover, Kelly did something that neither Ward nor Kelly’s other black predecessor Lee Brown did. Every Sunday while commissioner, Kelly spoke at black churches throughout the city, seeking black recruits.

Finally, there’s Kelly’s relationship with Sharpton, supposedly cemented decades ago — if you believe Kelly’s spokesman Paul Browne — when Kelly walked a beat in Upper Manhattan and Sharpton, then a teenager, apparently played hooky from school in Brooklyn.

It was Sharpton who toured the Bell crime scene with Conyers, while promising further protests. Supposedly, he and Kelly remain friends but it remains to be seen whether Sharpton will be satisfied with whatever action Kelly takes against the three cops who shot Bell. Ditto their higher-ups.

Kelly has also shown he is as wily as Sharpton in dealing with race-related incidents. In 203, after Alberta Spurill died of a heart attack after Emergency Service Unit officers burst into her apartment and set off a flash grenade, Kelly, to great fanfare, announced the transfer of Chief Thomas Purtell, commander of the Special Operations Division, to the Housing Bureau. Some viewed Purtell’s transfer as scapegoating because Kelly did not discipline Purtell’s ESU subordinate, Steven Bonano. A few months later when things quiet down Kelly made Purtell Bronx Borough commander.

Watching Kelly and Sharpton is like watching a cobra and a mongoose. The only question is which is which.

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Copyright © 2008 Leonard Levitt