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Harlem Mosque Shooting: New Facts From the Old Chief

March 28, 2011

Finally, after 39 years, a racial smear that has dogged the city’s first black police commissioner to his grave has been unequivocally debunked by the chief who was central to arguably the most disgraceful decision in the NYPD’s history.

According to Chief Al Seedman, the true culprits for that decision — which resulted in a failed investigation into a white police officer’s murder inside a Harlem mosque — were the NYPD’s top brass, most likely acting on orders from City Hall.

Instead, a smear campaign began against Benjamin Ward, a black lieutenant appointed Deputy Commissioner for Community Affairs, following the fatal shooting of Police Officer Philip Cardillo inside the mosque at 102 W. 116th Street on April 14,1972.

To quell a race riot raging outside, the police allowed a dozen African-American suspects in the building’s basement to leave before identifying them.

Their release doomed the investigation into Cardillo’s murder. To this day, no one has been convicted.

For years, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association blamed the suspects’ release on Ward, who 11 years later became the city’s first African-American police commissioner.

After the shooting, former PBA president Robert McKiernan declared in the union’s publication Front and Center that Ward “should either resign or be fired.”

The belief that Ward gave the fateful order has persisted to this day, even though in 1983 Newsday revealed the existence of a secret police report, known as the Blue Book, which exonerated him.

Rather, the report said that Seedman, the brash, no-nonsense Chief of Detectives, “made the reluctant decision.” In an interview in 1983, Seedman acknowledged to this reporter that he, not Ward, gave that order.

Again, just days ago, Seedman told this reporter that Ward played no role in letting the suspects go.

“That was my decision,” said the 92-year-old Seedman last Friday by telephone at his home in Florida. “He [Ward] had nothing to do with my decision. Nothing whatsoever.”

And, for the first time, Seedman publicly blamed former Chief of Department Michael Codd, and suggested that Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy or Mayor John V. Lindsay might have calling the shots, telling Codd what to do.

For years, insiders have suspected that Murphy and Lindsay played key roles in Seedman’s “reluctant decision.” But until now, neither Seedman nor any other police official has ever stated this publicly.

The 1970s were a time of heightened racial tensions across the city, exacerbated by the Black Liberation Army, which was randomly gunning down police officers.

Just months before Cardillo’s shooting, Seedman said he “had made arrangements for two busses from the Transit Authority to be delivered to the police academy, to stand by, empty, just in case a situation came up for mobilizing manpower anyplace in the city. We would use two busloads of recruits with helmets and nightsticks.

“I called Codd from the mosque,” recalled Seedman, who arrived there after Cardillo had been shot. “I wasn’t aware that some stuff had gone on before, that they had taken the white cops away.” White officers had been ordered out of the area as the riot raged outside the mosque after reinforcements had raced inside to help Cardillo — only to have commanders order them back out.

Many believed that Ward, who was also at the scene, had argued that the white cops be removed to ease tensions.

“Seeing how tense it was, on the street and in the mosque, I figured that more manpower would be of help to us,” Seedman continued. “We had a number of suspects in the basement, and some detectives were going to start to process these people, so we needed some time and I called headquarters and asked Codd to send two busloads of recruits. Very few people knew about this arrangement. Codd was the boss and he knew. He said, ‘No, I am denying that.’

“I remember, he said, ‘Denied. You can’t stay there.’

“In retrospect, I realize that most probably he was given that order by somebody above him. It could have been Murphy. It could have been the mayor.”

Murphy could not be reached for comment. Codd and Lindsay are dead.

Realizing that he would receive no backing from the brass, fearful of the riot’s escalating, and smarting from what Codd had told him, Seedman says he allowed the suspects to leave.

His decision was contingent on promises from mosque officials and Congressman Charles Rangel that they would produce the suspects at the 24th precinct, where the investigation was moved.

The suspects never appeared. Rangel denied to Newsday in 1983 that he made such a promise.

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The suspects never appeared. Rangel denied to Newsday in 1983 that he made such a promise.

A 1980 grand jury report into the failures of the Cardillo investigation criticized the department for “inexcusable procedures” and specifically cited the decision to release the suspects.

The police investigation, said the report, “had been curtailed in deference to fears of civil unrest in the black community …The long-term interests of justice in apprehending criminals were overridden by the short-term concern of preventing civil disorder.”

In 1983 as Ward was about to become police commissioner and opposition to him mounted because of his suspected role in releasing the suspects, Newsday discovered the secret Blue Book.

Written between March and June, 1973, it named Seedman as having made “the reluctant decision … to move the investigation to the 24th precinct on the promise of Mosque officials to produce the detainees thereat.”

Seedman, who unexpectedly retired just two weeks after the mosque shooting to become chief of security for Alexander’s Department store in Queens, told this reporter in 1983 that he had never heard of the Blue Book but acknowledged he, not Ward, had given the order.

Yet, to this day, the city’s mainstream media have not reported that the decision to release the suspects was Seedman’s, and his supporters have continued to maintain that Ward pressured him into freeing them.

Even the New York Times, which last week wrote about Seedman and the mosque case in its weekly police blog, did not acknowledge that Seedman himself made the decision to release the suspects.

Instead, its 1 Police Plaza column of Mar. 24th reported on a new edition of Seedman’s book, which is to be re-released on the 39th anniversary of the mosque shooting next month and headlined its story: “A Former Chief’s New Word on Why He Resigned.”

Citing the book’s publicist, the column stated that the new edition would “at last” reveal “the real reason he [Seedman] resigned — a reason he had hidden from his co-author, Peter Hellman, in the first edition.”

According to an email from Hellman that the Times printed, the real reason was a “feeling of betrayal over his being ordered by Chief Inspector Mike Codd by phone, to get out of the mosque.”

The Times never apparently reached Seedman to expand upon this new revelation. Nor did it mention the key fact that Seedman had ordered the suspects released. Nor did it address the decades-long smear of Ward.

But today, nearly 40 years later, the mosque shooting still haunts the NYPD.

Four years ago, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that he was reopening the case, but so far his investigation doesn’t seem to have produced results.

There is also a move afoot to rename a street outside Harlem’s28th precinct stationhouse after Officer Cardillo. But it appears to have run into opposition by local officials.

A reader’s email offers a new take on the rumored transfer of Deputy Chief James Shea, commanding officer of the NYPD-FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force — allegedly for refusing to share classified FBI information with his boss, Deputy Commissioner for Counter Terrorism Richard D’Addario. Kelly reportedly rescinded the transfer after Bureau officials protested.

“Chief Shea did not refuse to share with his bosses,” the emails reads. “He refused to remove a classified file from the FBI without permission. He knew it would be a violation of federal law. D’Addario ordered him to remove the file.He [Shea] refused.After he refused to take classified material from the FBI without permission, D’Addario tried to have him reassigned. Kelly knew this would be a media nightmare. That was why he was ‘un-reassigned.’

“Most of the NYPD, assigned to the JTTF, are terrified that D’Addario will get off after this incident. If the FBI does nothing, Chief Shea and all of the other NYPD assigned to the JTTF are going to be fair game.… There is a constant flow of classified information removed from the FBI by the NYPD to 1PP. They remove and discuss classified information outside the secure space of the federal government space all the time.

“The NYPD refuses to be polygraphed because they know they mishandle classified material all the time. They will be polygraphed if they wish to be assigned to National Counterterrorism Center, run by the CIA. The NYPD, from Kelly down, know they cannot pass a polygraph because the culture demands they not comply with the rules for handling classified material.”

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Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt