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Ray Kelly: No Wind of Change

June 2, 2008

Ray Kelly sounds like a reformer whenever a crisis strikes. But outside his anti-terrorism initiatives, what changes has he made in the NYPD?

Last week at the Citizens Crime Commission, Kelly announced he had accepted all 19 recommendations of yet another panel he established, this one after the fatal police shooting of Sean Bell during a botched undercover operation in November 2006.

This panel supposedly focused on promotions, recruitment, and supervision of undercovers.

But will the public learn what these recommendations are? More important, will Kelly implement them? Or will they remain mere palaver, as we’ve seen when other police offices on Kelly’s watch shot innocent civilians or broke into their homes?

For example, what has changed in the NYPD since a housing cop accidentally shot and killed 19-year Timothy Stansbury in 2004?

Officer Richard Neri had been checking the rooftops of the Louis Armstrong projects in Brooklyn, in what is known as a vertical patrol. When Stansbury pushed open an interior stairwell door at the exact moment that Neri’s partner pulled it open from the outside, the startled Neri, his gun drawn, pulled the trigger, killing Stansbury with one shot.

Mayor Bloomberg immediately acknowledged responsibility for Stansbury’s death, braving jeers from an angry crowd to visit his family. Less than 12 hours after the shooting, Kelly held a news conference at Police Plaza. Even before the department had completed its investigation, he announced, “There appears to be no justification for the shooting.”

The city’s media praised both Kelly’s candor and Bloomberg’s seeming act of contrition as calming a potential racial explosion. Law enforcement officials throughout the city and beyond, however, were aghast at what they termed Kelly’s rush-to-judgment.

A month later, a grand jury chose not to indict Neri, ruling the shooting accidental. The Stansbury family settled with the city for $2.1 million. The incident passed into history.

But what about the practice of officers patrolling rooftops with guns drawn, even with no indicia for violence? At the time, Kelly defended the practice as common and acceptable. [Apparently it’s a carryover from the Housing Police, which was merged with the NYPD under former mayor Rudy Giuliani.]

While rooftops are havens for drug dealers and pit bulls, what about kids playing up there, or law-abiding residents using them for shortcuts across connected buildings, as Stansbury fatefully did?

Did Kelly review the policy of officers patrolling with guns drawn? If so, what did he conclude? Is the policy still in effect or did Kelly change it? Maybe there’s justification for keeping it. But he has never informed the public.

Next, let’s examine the death of Alberta Spruill, the 57-year-old Harlem woman who died in a flawed police raid in 2003. Spruill, a city employee for 29 years, suffered a fatal heart attack after a dozen Emergency Service Unit officers threw a flash grenade into her apartment. They had acted on bad information from an informant that someone was using her apartment to store drugs and guns.

This was not the first time the police under Kelly had made such a mistake, although, mercifully, it has been the only fatal incident. The previous September, police had broken down the door of a Brooklyn woman, Williemae Mack, with a similar explosive device, terrifying her and her 13-year-old twin sons, jarred awake by the crash and boom. When one of the twins hid under his bed, police pulled him out and put a gun to his head.

A month later, a retired housing cop, Richard Rogers, and his wife Marie, a retired correction captain, were watching television in their Queens home when cops broke down their door. Rogers grabbed his licensed gun and prepared to shoot at what he assumed were intruders. Seeing the cops, he dropped the gun and dove to cover it with his body so that they wouldn’t shoot him, thinking he was going to fire at them.

That same month, police also broke down the door of Michael Thompson, a licensed private nurse, and put a gun to his head. In each of these cases, police had been searching for drugs and/or guns. In each case, their tips were wrong.

Amidst the outcry over Spruill’s death, Bloomberg again took responsibility, telling mourners at her funeral, “As mayor, I failed to protect someone.” Kelly suspended the use of flash grenades. He also transferred Chief Thomas Purtell, commander of the Special Operations Division, which supervises ESU, although the chief had no direct involvement in the raid. Kelly explained the transfer, saying, “In light of what’s happened in the last two weeks, we need a fresh look at supervision and training.”

Six months later, Kelly, quietly promoted Purtell to the prestigious position of Bronx Borough commander. Whatever fresh look at supervision and training Kelly had discovered, he has kept to himself.

The same month that Spruill died, Ousmane Zongo, a newly arrived African immigrant was shot by police officer Bryan Conroy during another bungled undercover raid — this one aimed at a CD counterfeiting ring at a Chelsea warehouse.

Among the raid’s missteps:

bulletPolice weren’t familiar with the layout of the warehouse.

bulletOfficers didn’t follow their plan to wait for the Emergency Service Unit to lead the raid.

bulletConroy’s superiors didn’t provide him with NYPD identification inside the warehouse.

When Conroy called for backup, no one came because his bosses were unaware that access to his post was impossible by stairway and only reachable by elevator.

Result: he was isolated on the warehouse’s third floor, dressed in a mailman’s uniform, where he confronted Zongo. The two apparently mistook each other for robbers, leading to a chase through the warehouse’s maze-like rooms that ended with Zongo’s death.

At the time, Kelly appeared as solicitous to Zongo’s family as he and Bloomberg had been to Stansbury’s. Acknowledging “very troubling questions about the shooting,” he consoled Zongo’s widow in his office at Police Plaza, in a meeting arranged by Al Sharpton, who had the ear of Kelly and Bloomberg after Giuliani froze him out for eight years. .

After the meeting Sharpton told reporters that Kelly had promised a full department investigation.

At Conroy’s trial, in December 2005, Manhattan State Supreme Court Judge Robert Straus blamed Zongo’s death on the department’s poor planning and supervision of the raid.

“I frankly felt there could be other people sitting at the [defendant’s] table with Mr. Conroy,” Straus said. “I think there is shared responsibility here.”

Yet despite Kelly’s promise of an investigation, the department never made public its findings. There has been no explanation of how Conroy’s bosses — his sergeant, lieutenant and captain — made the series of tactical mistakes that led to Zongo’s death.

Even during Conroy’s trial, two and a half years after the shooting, the department claimed not to have determined which supervisory lapses led to Zongo’s death.

Kelly’s spokesman Paul Browne blamed the department’s inaction on Manhattan District Attorney Morgenthau, who allegedly had asked the NYPD to postpone its own review until the criminal trial ended. That, at least, was Browne’s story.

Morgenthau denied asking for a delay. Said his spokeswoman Barbara Thompson: “No such request was ever made.”

Emendation: Last week’s column used the words “dumping ground” for officers to describe the VIPER unit. A reader notes that the unit includes officers with legitimate medical problems.

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Copyright © 2008 Leonard Levitt