One Police Plaza

Numbers tell sobering story

February 15, 1999

As most everyone knows by now, the four officers who shot unarmed street peddler Amadou Diallo were members of the police department's street-crime unit. That's the citywide unit that operates solely in high-crime neighborhoods and whose mission is the suppression of violent streeet crime by seizing guns.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir has given that unit a lot of attention, more than tripling it from 137 cops in 1997 to 438 now. But that rapid growth came despite the warning of the unit's former head, who feared the quick expansion would lead to recruits not being properly selected or trained.

At a news conference last week at City Hall, Safir implicitly acknowledged the warnings of then-captain Richard Savage when, responding to a question from Ch. 5's Bob O'Brien, he said he "disagreed" with Savage's assessment.

The gung-ho, macho unit, whose members call themsevles "The Best of the Finest" and whose T-shirt slogan reads, "We Rule the Night," is regarded by many as one of the department's most successful. Safir has said it is responsible for 40 percent of the department's gun seizures and has praised it as the key to reducing violence to levels not seen in 35 years. "I wish I could bottle their enthusiasm and make everyone take a drink of it," he told the Daily News last October.

According to a former deputy commissioner, its cops "have a sixth sense about guns. The best of them are highly aggressive but not with their guns. That is the difference between a good street cop and an overly aggressive cop. They are able to get guns off the street without resorting to force."

Savage, now retired, said, "I can't tell you how many times we took away guns without shots being fired. 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."

He added that "over the years, I have lost four cops. Two of them were black. Some of the people protesting today never said a word about either of them."

In recruiting cops, he said, "I used the selection process as a secret tool; personally interviewed everyone. I looked at arrest activity. They had to be highly recommended by their commanding officer." He said he also loooked for warning signs: departmental charges in the police trial-room, prior shootings and civilian complaints.

But Savage was then promoted to deputy inspector and transferred.

Of the four cops who shot Diallo, three of them - Kenneth Boss, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy - had been in street-crime only three months. Three of them - Boss, McMellon and Carroll - had prior shooting incidents and civilian complaints. McMellon's and Carroll's shootings were found to be legitimate. Boss is pending.

Boss, McMellon and Carroll have had civilian complaints. All were found to be unsubstantiated.

The Numbers. Since the Diallo shooting, reporters have asked Commissioner Safir about the unit's racial breakdown. Safir says he doesn't have the figures "at hand."

The reason he hasn't released them, says a top departmental official, is that the number of blacks and Hispanics is virtually nil.

Before its tripling, the unit had only 10 to 12 black and Hispanic cops, says this official. Since the expansion in 1997, only one or two have been added.

And the number of black and Hispanic supervisors in the unit, he says, is even lower.

Department sources say Safir recognized the disparity and in May, 1997, ordered a study by former Equal Employment Opportunity Deputy Commissioner Sandra Marsh. Although the department mounted a recruiting drive through its black and Hispanic fraternal organziations, both of which are in disarray, no one was interested.

The Nitty-Gritty. Willis Crosson, who retired last year as a detective, described his work in street-crime a decade ago that pushed the legal envelope to the edge: "We'd stop cars randomly, with a lot of people in them. You'd figure five guys in a car, there's got to be a gun. We'd have all the occupants get out. We'd go into the trunk. We'd go into the glove compartment looking for a gun. We'd conduct full searches when there was no threat."

Howard's Fadeout. Mayoral spokeswoman Colleen Roche says anyone suggesting strains between Safir and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over Safir's trip to Los Angeles "is dead wrong." But does Giuliani know that on Safir's first day in L.A., he played golf with two L.A. chiefs and former first deputy and now police commissioner of Philadelphia John Timoney? It was Timoney who called Safir a "lightweight," prompting Giuliani to run Timoney out of One Police Plaza.

©1999 Newsday, Inc.Reprinted with permission.