Another Police Shooting, Another Black Victim
June 1, 2009
Try as we might in New York City, we cannot outrun the issue of race, especially when it comes to the police.
On one end of the spectrum is the remark by the city’s first black police commissioner Ben Ward about “our dirty little secret” – a reference to the high rate of crime by young black males.
On the other end, there is police commissioner Ray Kelly’s practice of stopping and frisking young black males at a staggeringly disproportionate rate to other groups.
While police officials won’t admit it publicly, race played figured predominantly in the NYPD’s most recent tragedy: a white anti-crime cop’s shooting of an off-duty, plainclothes rookie cop, Omar Edwards, who was black.
Edwards had just gotten off duty when he saw a crack-head allegedly breaking into his parked car in East Harlem. Gun drawn, Edwards, in civilian clothes, with no police badge visible, chased the thief.
The white officer, Andrew Dunton, who happened on the scene as part of an anti-crime team, apparently mistook Edwards for a criminal and fired six times, killing the 25-year-old father of two.
Based on the statements of Dunton, his anti-crime partners and that of a dubious civilian witness, the alleged thief, that Dunton identified himself as a police officer and ordered Edwards to drop his weapon, the department is already blaming Edwards for his death.
Police sources are saying Edwards violated the NYPD’s Patrol Guide, which mandates he remain motionless when so ordered. Instead, based on the statements of Dunton and the others, police say Edwards turned towards Dunton, with his gun hand raised.
We’ll leave it to the medical examiner to square those statements with the fact that the bullet that killed Edwards struck him in the back.
At the heart of issue is the “predisposition” that all blacks are criminals, according to former NYPD captain and now state senator Eric Adams.
Or as Noel Leader, Adams’ founding partner of the group, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said, "The immediate assumption is that a black man with a gun is a criminal and the white man is given the benefit of the doubt that there's a possibility that he's in law enforcement.”
While such words border on hyperbole and such police-on-police shootings in New York City are mercifully rare, can anyone recall a black officer in New York mistakenly shooting a white police officer, believing him to be a criminal?
NYPD officials stayed mum on the race factor but others were nothing less than crass about it. Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel made this snarky remark about President Obama’s weekend visit to the city: “Make certain he doesn’t run around East Harlem unidentified.”
Memo to Rangel: It’s not just white police officers who may be “predisposed” to view blacks as criminals. At least two of the four cops who fired 50 shots, killing Sean Bell, were non-white.
And it’s not just police officers who may be so “predisposed.” Recall Jesse Jackson’s remarks a decade or so ago about his fears of being accosted late at night by young black males.
Meanwhile, black leaders across the city from Adams to Al Sharpton to mayoral candidate William Thompson are calling for an independent “outside” investigation into the Edwards’ shooting.
Well, we already have one, conducted by the. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. At 89 years old, he still has few rivals when it comes to integrity and savvy.
Finally, there is Kelly’s and Mayor Michael’s Bloomberg’s declaration of increased “confrontation training,” which is shorthand for police reform. That’s their answer to this, the fourth police-related, racially-charged fatal shooting in the Bloomberg/Kelly administration, in which all the victims were black.
If the past is any indication, don’t count on much from Kelly. He may be pro-active when it comes to terrorism but not when it comes to reform.
Remember Ousmane Zongo, the African immigrant fatally shot in 2003 during an undercover white police officer in a botched raid of a Manhattan warehouse?
Acknowledging “very troubling questions about the shooting,” Kelly consoled Zongo’s widow in his office at Police Plaza, a meeting arranged by Sharpton. Afterwards, Sharpton told reporters Kelly had promised a full department investigation of the shooting.
Despite Kelly’s promise, he has never revealed his so-called findings.
Remember Timothy Stansbury, the black teenager fatally shot at 1:30 A.M. on the rooftop of his Brooklyn housing project in January, 2004 by a white officer, patrolling with his gun drawn who accidentally fired when he pulled open an interior door and came upon Stansbury?
Kelly did a lot of posturing then, too, saying there was “no justification” for the officer’s alleged misconduct, although a Brooklyn grand jury brought no charges against him.
But Kelly never publicly addressed the case’s most obvious concern – the practice of officers patrolling rooftops with guns drawn, even with no indication of violence. Cops say the policy is still in place.
Then there is Sean Bell, killed in a hail of 50 police bullets during an undercover operation at a Queens club.
Kelly then announced a series of bold-sounding reforms: breathalyzer tests for cops who fire their weapons; the Rand Corporation to examine the phenomenon of “contagious shooting” – presumably the reason the cops had fired 50 rounds.
But again, he did not address the underlying police problems of oversight and training that had led to the shooting.
Nor did the mandated breathalyzer tests have any bearing on the Bell case. How could they when department rules permitted the undercover who had fired the first shot to drink inside the club?
THE OUTLAW CHIEF. The odds finally caught up with Chief Michael Scagnelli. After 39 and ½ years on the job, he was forced to retire last week, the day before his 63rd birthday, the department’s age for retirement.
The son of a doctor, with three brothers who are doctors, Scagnelli decided to become a cop as a teenager after his uncle, police officer Joe Baci, was shot “and Mike rushed to the hospital and saw all these cops crying,” said his cousin, Marie Briganti.
Whether working undercover narcotics as a detective, commanding Brooklyn’s 66th precinct amidst a sea of Hasidic rabbis, or creating and commanding the Traffic Control Bureau, Scagnelli bled NYPD blue for the next 39 ½ years.
Yet for the past decade, he has been in and out of trouble with the department.
In the early 1990s while heading the Honor Legion, an organization of decorated officers, he used the organization's stationery to write a New Jersey sentencing judge, seeking leniency for a convicted felon and adding his NYPD title of deputy inspector to his signature.
Divine intervention occurred in the form of phone calls from some Hasidic rabbis from the 66th. No charges were filed against him, although he was penalized five vacation days.
In 1996 as an assistant chief heading the city’s Traffic Control Division, then commissioner Howard Safir bounced Scagnelli, saying he negotiated a pact to share a traffic-control center in Long Island City with the city's Department of Transportation without Safir's knowledge.
In 1999, while executive officer of Patrol Borough Manhattan South, Scagnelli was escorting the widows and children of slain officers during a Yankee parade when the lieutenant commanding Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's security detail stopped Scagnelli at a "frozen zone."
After Scagnelli said something resembling, "You work for the Police Department, not the ... mayor," he was accused of disrespecting Giuliani, and was described in The New York Times by an unnamed city official [Deputy Police Commissioner for Public Information Marilyn Mode] as having committed the sin of "hobnobbing" with celebrities.
For the next year, he hid out in the back office of Chief of Detectives William Allee. Still, Scagnelli reported to work every day.
Promoted by Kelly in 2002 to a three-star chief, heading the Transportation Bureau, Scagnelli refused to cancel a long-planned Mexican hunting safari amidst the threat of a Transit Strike. Although he returned before the strike, his absence infuriated Kelly.
Kelly’s chief of staff, Joe Wuensch, ordered Scagnelli to remove the stuffed animal heads on his office wall. Wuensch offered no explanation.
As his retirement loomed, Scagnelli lobbied to have a bill passed in Albany raising the retirement age from 63 to 66. One of those he lobbied was Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch, who told Scagnelli he would remain neutral.
Instead, Lynch wrote a letter opposing the bill. Some people say he did this after receiving a call from Kelly.
While friends congratulated Scagnelli on his retirement last week, he was overheard saying that it was “the saddest day of my life.”