One Police Plaza

Diversity class backfires

March 22, 1999

The Police Department held its first "cultural diversity" class for the Street Crime Unit since the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, and what a mess it became.

Once again, the subject of race was the catalyst.

About 150 cops attended Tuesday's class, which was run by Sgt. Kelvin Alexander of the Community Affairs office, in the Police Academy auditorium in Manhattan. The all-day session consisted of lectures by Alexander and retired sergeant Steve Duncanson on stereotyping and attitudes, and of role-playing and straight-talk by civilians.

According to a participant, that's when the trouble started. When a civilian from the Bronx lost his cool and attacked the unit over its 41-shot fusillade that killed Diallo, saying it had set back police-community relations 10 or 20 years, one of the street-crime's Brooklyn cops lost his cool, not only at the civilian but at Alexander.

The cop, William Sample, stalked out of the room and refused to speak to Alexander, who'd ordered him not to leave. Alexander became so upset he considered charging Sample with insubordination and told associates afterward, "If that's how these guys act in a closed setting, how do they act on the street?"

And that was just the beginning. Sample happens to be one of the 500-member-unit's handful of black cops, whose number is so small Police Commissioner Howard Safir refuses to release it. During the class Sample accused Alexander, who is also black, of belonging to "100 Blacks in Law Enforcement," an unsanctioned fraternal group regarded inside the department as radicals.

Specifically, Sample in class accused the group of calling him an "Uncle Tom" and of harassing him at his home for his membership in Street Crime, prompting its president, Eric Adams, to say to Newsday, "If we harassed him, let him put it down on paper. Our group had no contact with him, ever." Adams added: "We never called him an Uncle Tom." Sample didn't return a phone message left at Brooklyn street crime Saturday.

At the next cultural diversity class on Thursday, the street-crime cops accused Alexander of lacking credibility because of his membership in the black organization. Alexander spent the next hour explaining his position - saying that "100 Blacks" had been founded for the same reasons as such white fraternal groups as the Emeralds, Columbians or Shomrim Society earlier in the century - to protect Irish, Italian or Jewish New Yorkers from being victimized by cops. (While so far as is known, no official history of those groups has been written, a more likely explanation is that they were founded to protest discrimination against Irish, Italian or Jewish cops within the department.)

So fractious was the Tuesday argument between Sample and Alexander that Patrolmen's Benevolent Association bigfoot Ed Mahoney appeared at the Thursday session. In an interview, Mahoney, a trustee whose jurisdiction includes street-crime and who is running for PBA president, explained he had come to protect Sample from Alexander. "Every street cop knows that "100 Blacks" bashes Street Crime Unit ," he said.

"I'm here to protect a black kid who is a good cop who doesn't want to deal with any racial bull . - - -

Al, no. Sidique, yes. Since the Diallo shooting, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Commissioner Howard Safir have been meeting with Sidique Wai of United African Congress, a group incorporated a year ago with 200 members.

While some African-American politicians have vilified him, Wai, who was born in the West African country of Sierra Leone, views himself since the Diallo shooting as a bridge between American blacks and Africans, whose numbers in the city he estimates at 200,000.

In an interview in his fifth-floor office at the SUNY Health Science Center at Brooklyn, Wai described himself as a health care "technician" and said he had been a community activist for Caribbean Americans for the past 20 years. He says he first met Safir at the 71st Precinct in Crown Heights, where since the 1991 riots he has organized an annual picnic for blacks and Jews.

He says Safir called to meet him at One Police Plaza just days after the Diallo incident, and that Giuliani "reached out" shortly afterward to meet him at City Hall with Safir's top commissioners. (Safir was in Los Angeles that day.)

He says he attended Diallo's funeral at which the Rev. Al Sharpton announced him as "Brother Sidique." He added he would not respond to criticism from Rep. Charles Rangel (who called him "a fraud"), because, "It is not in our African tradition to criticize an elder."

©1999 Newsday, Inc.Reprinted with permission.