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Fessing Up Over Stop-and-Frisk

September 15, 2008

Let's discuss some hard truths about stop-and-frisk.

That's the NYPD policy of stopping and questioning young men, many of them teenagers — virtually all of them, black and Hispanic — primarily because of their race.

It's probably discriminatory, similar to Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen's spying on legitimate political protest groups because a few preach violence.

In both cases, the New York Civil Liberties Union is suing the department to get their files.

Your Humble Servant teaches a journalism course at Brooklyn college, where most students are non-white. Many say that anytime a group of young black males gathers, the police are not far behind.

Some say that's not such a bad thing because groups of young black males without supervision often equals trouble.

Now, some history. Back in the day, nearly two decades ago, when David Dinkins was mayor and Ray Kelly First Deputy Commissioner, the two believed in “community policing,” where cops walked beats under the theory that better police-community relations translated into less crime. A corollary held that crime's root causes were societal, which the police could not solve.

This defeatist outlook became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

During Dinkins' four years as mayor, crime skyrocketed. In 1990, his first year in office, the number of murders — the bellwether crime that police cannot cover up or dumb down to a lesser category — reached a staggering 2,245. The number hovered around 2,000 for the next three years while New York City's image came to resemble a Hogarth tableau, with panhandlers frightening passersby, squeegee-men intimidating drivers at bridge and tunnel entrances, hordes of homeless sleeping in the subways, urinating and defecating in the streets, and marauding drug gangs terrorizing housing projects with random shootings.

There was a racial component to all this as police have long maintained that young, non-white males commit most of the city's violent crimes.

A few years before, Ben Ward, the city's first black police commissioner, had noted this situation, calling it “our dirty little secret.”

Of course, most of the victims of these crimes were also young, non-white males, a fact that people don't note as often.

Then in 1993, Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor. He had run on a platform of drastically reducing “street crime.”

He hired William Bratton as police commissioner, and crime — which had actually had begun falling during Kelly's 14 months as police commissioner — fell dramatically.

Meanwhile Giuliani, Bratton, and their respective aides derided community policing as “social work,” and depicted Kelly as a wimp on crime.

Giuliani and Bratton also took credit for ridding the city of squeegee-men, another effort actually begun by Kelly.

At the same time, Giuliani made crime a political issue. God help the mayor or police commissioner on whose watch crime would rise, a phenomenon we, thankfully, have not seen in the past 15 years, some occasional up-ticks notwithstanding.

Bratton's successor, Howard Safir, was so afraid that crime would rise on his watch that he tripled the size of the Street Crime Unit, until then an elite group, praised for reducing the numbers of guns on the street.

Its commanders liked to say that the plainclothes Street Crime cops had a sixth sense about knowing whether a person was armed. “I can't tell you how many times we took away guns without shots being fired,” explained the unit's commander, Captain Richard Savage. “You'd see a bulge. You'd see a guy go into his pocket. He may be looking to dump the gun. In that split second he has the gun in his hand, you'd be justified in shooting. If we fired every time we were justified, the streets would be littered with people.”

Savage personally interviewed every cop he hired. “I used the selection process

as a secret tool,” he said. “I looked at arrest activity. They had to be highly recommended by their commanding officer. I also looked for warning signs: I wanted people with no departmental charges in the police trial room, no prior shootings and no civilian complaints.”

In 1997, in what would turn out to be his most fateful decision as police commissioner, Safir ordered the unit tripled in size to 438 officers. The increase translated into quick results. For that year, Street Crime officers seized 1,139 guns, a 59 per cent jump over 1996.

But within the unit, officers felt uneasy that so many new recruits had been put on the street too quickly. When Savage protested the expansion's speed, Safir promoted him to Deputy Inspector and transferred him out of Street Crime.

A direct result of Safir's rapid expansion was the 41-shot barrage of police bullets by four, inexperienced, untrained Street Crime cops that killed the unarmed Amadou Diallo. For the police, for black New Yorkers, in fact for all New Yorkers, it can't get much worse than that.

Then, in 2002, Kelly returned as police commissioner. One of his first acts was to disband the Street Crime Unit.

Safir, who had apparently learned nothing from the Diallo shooting, didn't hesitate to criticize this move, although he himself had placed the unit in uniform after the shooting, destroying its effectiveness.

Kelly, meanwhile, in his second turn as commissioner, has proved himself a warrior against terrorism. He has also sought to portray himself as a fighter against crime, a la Bratton/Giuliani.

A high-tech guy, he has fine-tuned Bratton's crime-stopping COMPSTAT program, replacing its pin-maps to spot crime clusters with computers. He then floods high crime areas with rookies under a program known as Operation Impact.

This means more stop and frisks of young black and Hispanic men.

Yet this controversial policy is also a major reason that crime continues to fall. The long arm of the NYPD does keep a lid on violent crime, although the department —as well as liberal New Yorkers — rarely acknowledge this.

Espo's Camera.
So Ray Kelly is becoming more and more like Big Brother. Now his 24-hour scrutiny of everything and everyone has fallen upon his own high command.

As Newsday's Rocco Parascandola reported last week, Kelly has placed surveillance cameras outside the Brooklyn home of Chief of Department Joe Esposito. Not just one camera, but three, including one that captures images up the block of the quiet street where he lives.

Espo is considered “highly visible,” as Parascandola put it, appearing at news conferences with Kelly and responding to crime scenes. Presumably, the cameras will spot anyone who wants to trouble to him or his family, although the possibility of that is remote, considering his blue-chip reputation.

But while highly visible, Espo is never heard from. Although he attends news conferences, Kelly does not permit him to speak.

OK, so maybe Espo is not Kelly's biggest fan. So maybe, under the guise of protecting Espo, Kelly wants to catch him off-guard while off-duty.

And is Espo alone? Have other top department officials had surveillance cameras placed outside their homes? The department hasn't said.

What about Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen, the scourge of alleged terrorists and political plotters? Is not his home a logical candidate for a camera?

On the other hand, remember the time Mayor Mike spotted him tooling up the West Side Highway with his lights and sirens blazing? Under the guise of protecting him, maybe that third camera might catch him speeding up to his apartment.

Or what about Deputy Commissioner for Counter Terrorism Richard Falkenrath? Under the guise of protecting him, maybe Kelly wants to ensure that Falkenrath no longer has those two luxury touring cars that were leased for him, as Falkenrath had demanded when he took the job at the NYPD..

Finally there's Internal Affairs Charlie Campisi, a decent man who seems to have lost his way. If ever a soul needed a surveillance camera, it is poor Charlie. Consider his inane suspension of Det. Ivan Davison, who, while off-duty, interrupted a beat-down and got shot in the process. He fired back and struck his assailant. Instead of treating him as the hero he was, Campisi suspended him because he tested a tad over the legal drinking limit. Kelly had instituted the testing whenever officers fire their weapons.

Maybe Kelly is afraid Campisi has lost it. A surveillance camera outside Campisi's house might be just what he needs. If Campisi is so lost that he can't find his own front door, maybe the department can spot the problem send help.

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Copyright © 2008 Leonard Levitt