One Police Plaza

Race prism for Bronx gunplay

January 31, 2000

It's hard to view the Amadou Diallo shooting-like so many other police shootings in the Bronx-without the prism of race.

The trial of the four white officers accused of murdering the unarmed West African immigrant opens today in Albany, after an appellate court moved the case from the Bronx, where the shooting occurred, supposedly because an impartial jury couldn't be found there. The subtext is that Bronx juries are predominantly "minority" and considered "anti-cop."

Never mind that the four cops' lawyers planned to waive a jury trial and have the case heard by a judge, who-supposedly selected at random-also turned out to be black.

Fifteen years ago, two other fatal police shootings occurred in the Bronx within four months of each other. One drew media coverage as extensive as that of the Diallo shooting. The other was ignored. Race appeared to make the difference.

On Oct. 29, 1984, Stephen Sullivan, a white officer, shot and killed Eleanor Bumpers, an elderly black woman, after she lunged at him with a kitchen knife. As is the custom in a Bronx police shooting, Sullivan's attorney, Bruce Smirti, waived a jury. The case was heard before a specially selected senior white judge, who acquitted Sullivan, then retired.

On Feb. 24, 1985, Smirti represented another Bronx cop who fatally shot an unarmed civilian. The cop, Mervin Yearwood, was black; the victim, 19-year- old Paul Fava, was white.

"It was as bad a shooting as I've seen," Smirti said last week. "The kid was standing on an elevated subway platform. Yearwood was questioning him, gun cocked against the kid's head, when it accidentally discharged. You could see the muzzle imprint on the skin of his temple."

Because Yearwood was black, Smirti said, he decided to have him tried before a Bronx jury. He was acquitted.

As occurred outside One Police Plaza Plaza after the Diallo shooting, thousands of people protested outside the Bronx county courthouse during the Bumpers trial. They were led by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who through the years has haunted the city's courthouses bearing witness to fatal police shootings where blacks were victims.

Daughtry was last seen a few months ago at the Bronx trial of Michael Meyer, a white cop, acquitted by a white judge of shooting an unarmed black squeegee man. Today, as the Diallo trial opens, Daughtry is there.

Fifteen years ago, this reporter asked Daughtry why no one-including himself-had denounced the Fava shooting. He said he had contacted the Fava family to offer condolences.

Last week, he said he didn't remember the specifics of the incident, but said reaching out to the family "sounded like something I would do."

He added, "You have to be consistent. Consistency and compassion go together. To be consistent, you have to rise beyond nationalism, beyond religion and beyond race."

Bravest or Whiniest? City firefighters refer to themselves as The Bravest. After their semi-hysterical reaction to an episode of the television show " NYPD Blue"-which portrayed a couple of them stealing from the victim of a fire-a more apt description might be The Whiniest.

The show's producer, ex-NYPD detective Bill Clark says: "I stand by what I did. I am not looking for a war. Good people do bad things." What he means is that one or two thieving firefighters don't reflect the department any more than one or two violent cops represent the whole NYPD.

Clark's story line has been around since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when firefighters collided with police Emergency Service and Aviation units. As a former top police official put it, "We offered to helicopter them up, and they insisted on walking up."

Police officials this week said that office equipment and booze from the Windows on the World restaurant atop the trade center disappeared and that a camera on an ATM machine inside the building captured some of the thievery on videotape, although no charges were ever filed.

Fire officials have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

Goodbye and Hello. Credit the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association for hiring Insp. Joe Maccone, a 31-year veteran who headed the department's pension section and who is retiring after having been passed over for deputy chief despite a top rating by the department's Promotion Advisory Board.

More than anyone else, Maccone is responsible for cleaning up pension abuses, especially among top brass. Before he took over, people such as former Chief of Department Robert Johnston claimed that his hearing loss, for which he received a tax-free, line-of-duty pension, was caused by a firecracker exploding at a Rolling Stones concert he supervised rather than the fact he was 63 years old.

Under Maccone, only four top chiefs have retired with line-of-duty pensions since the mid-1990S. Three were due to the PBA-sponsored Heart Bill, which, courtesy of the state Legislature (and with no medical justification), holds that any heart problem is job-related.

©2000 Newsday, Inc.Reprinted with permission.