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History Belongs to the Winners: Maybe It Shouldn’t

October 13, 2008

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson complained recently that this column slighted former mayor David Dinkins regarding credit for the city’s dramatic gains in fighting crime.

The D.A. may have a point, although few associate Dinkins’ mayoralty with good news on the crime front. What we all remember from those bad old days of the early 1990s when murders overwhelmed the city are headlines like the Post’s “Dave, Do Something.”

Johnson took exception to this passage from the September 15th column:

“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 2000 for the next three years….”

As the saying goes, history is written by the winners. This has been particularly true of the NYPD since 1994 when Rudy Giuliani defeated Dinkins for mayor and appointed Bill Bratton to succeed Ray Kelly as police commissioner.

Both Giuliani and Bratton touted their accomplishments, while dismissing those of the Dinkins administration, including Kelly’s only full year as commissioner in 1993.

Despite Giuliani’s and Bratton’s oversized egos, there was substance to their spin.

We’ve all come to accept the fact that they engineered the city’s dramatic crime decreases that occurred on their watch, thanks largely to Bratton’s deputy, Jack Maple. His COMPSTAT program, which tracked crime and predicted trends, epitomized the NYPD’s new-found accountability that did not exist during the Dinkins years.

Referring to those years, the Sept 15th column said: “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.”

But in the seven years that Kelly has served a second term as police commissioner, he, too, has become a winner.

With that success, there has emerged a revisionist view about crime in the Dinkins years.

Take the front page article in the Times on Nov. 29, 2007, heralding last year’s record-low homicide rates, which said, “Homicides began falling in the early 1990s, when Raymond W. Kelly first served as police commissioner, and plummeted further under subsequent commissioners.”

Absent in the article was any mention of Bratton, Maple or COMPSTAT.

Now let’s return to D.A. Johnson. He points out that the record 1990 homicide number of 2,245 occurred during Dinkins’ first year and that crime began falling after that.

So he argues that crime began falling under Dinkins. As he put it in an article he wrote in the Post, “It was under Dinkins that the tide started to turn.”

Here now — as supplied by the NYPD unofficial official historian Thomas Reppetto — are the homicide numbers beginning in 1989, the year before Dinkins took office, through 1996, Bratton’s last year as police commissioner.

You, reader, decide who deserves the credit.

bullet1989 – 1,905
bullet1990, Dinkins' first year in office – 2,245
bullet1991 – 2,154
bullet1992 – 1.995
bullet1993 – Kelly’s only full year as police commissioner under Dinkins – 1,946
bullet1994, Giuliani’s and Bratton’s first year in office – 1,561
bullet1995 – 1,177
bullet1996, Bratton’s last year in office – 983

Still, the Mosque.
History has yet to record its final verdict in the fatal shooting of Police Officer Philip Cardillo inside a Harlem mosque nearly 40 years ago.

No one was ever convicted of the 1972 shooting. Controversy still rages over who gave the order to release a dozen or so suspects before they were identified in order to quell a near-riot that had begun outside.

Despite Newsday’s discovery in 1983 of a top-secret department report that says Chief of Detective Al Seedman gave that controversial order, many in the department still blame Ben Ward, then the Deputy Commissioner for Community Affairs.

A decade after Cardillo’s murder, Ward became the city’s first black police commissioner. The politics behind his promotion explain in part why some still hold him, not Seedman, responsible for the suspects’ release.

Retired Captain Ed Mamet is one of them. He still defends Seedman, even though the chief acknowledged to this reporter in 1983 that he had given the order to release the suspects. Asked why he had never publicly owned up to it, allowing Ward to twist in the wind for a decade, Seedman responded, “What good would it have done?”

But Mamet offers another explanation. He says that when Ward was considered for police commissioner, “Seedman gave me his notes, from memory, regarding what he had had told the grand jury” that investigated the shooting in 1980.

“Seedman told me that he was pressured by Ward and [Congressman Charles] Rangel who told him that if he didn’t release the prisoners [the dozen or so suspects] they were sure there would be a riot, that he tried to reach then Police Commissioner [Patrick] Murphy who was MIA and that he tried to reach Chief Inspector [Michael] Codd who was also MIA.”

Mamet continues: “When he [Seedman] asked Ward why he didn’t order the release of the prisoners, Ward told him that since he was not in the chain of command and only a deputy police commissioner [a civilian] he had no authority to do so. ...While in theory that may be true, in reality few ranking members of the uniformed force would defy a deputy commissioner.”

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Copyright © 2008 Leonard Levitt