One Police Plaza

Shooting in Queens: Will Kelly's Spin Cut It?

November 27, 2006

Strip away the power-red ties. Strip away all the terrorism talk and denigration of the FBI, Homeland Security, and every law enforcement official save himself. Strip away the intimidation of reporters and threats of retaliation for negative stories. Strip it all away and you’ll find — as indicated by Saturday’s shooting in Queens of three unarmed blackn men by five undercover officers reacting to the threat of a gun that has not been found — that the police department of Ray Kelly may not be so different from that of Howard Safir.

The difference is spin — spinning the story to Kelly’s advantage, which Kelly and his spokesman, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne, have done better than anyone else in town.


bulletAlberta Spruill, a Harlem grandmother, died of a heart attack after police raided her apartment and threw a flash grenade.

bullet Timothy Stansbury was fatally shot by a housing cop on the rooftop of his Brooklyn apartment building.

bullet Ousmane Zongo was fatally shot by an undercover police officer during a raid in a Chelsea warehouse.

All three shootings occurred while Kelly was police commissioner. All three victims were unarmed and black. In all three cases, Kelly skated.

In this case, however, his spin on the shootings — in which cops fired 50 shots, killed one man, and seriously wounded two others — might not be enough to quell the anger. How the shootings will affect his budding mayoral ambitions among black voters remains to be seen.

Now let’s return to yesteryear and Safir. Back in 1999, following the 44-shot fusillade that killed the unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo after cops apparently mistook his wallet for a gun, Safir performed like the ignoramus he was. Most blatant was his pleading a “scheduling conflict” to avoid testifying about the shooting before the city council. The night before the hearing, he was caught on television attending the Oscars in Hollywood.

He and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani lacked political capital with the city’s black establishment, having managed to antagonize most black New Yorkers. The result was the months-long, Al Sharpton-led Diallo demonstrations outside One Police Plaza, with virtually every black city official on the protest line.

Contrast that with how Kelly has handled the Queens shooting — in which undercover cops fired 50 rounds at the car in which the three black men were driving after leaving a bachelor party at a Jamaica nightclub. The club had been the subject of repeated police investigations, indicating that at least the cops’ stakeout or infiltration, or whatever the operation was called, had a certain justification.

The shooting occurred around 4 A.M. Saturday. Kelly then holed up with his advisers at One Police Plaza to get his and the department’s story straight. Not until Saturday night, some 16 hours after the shooting, did he speak to the public.

Kelly’s critics say that when there’s good news he takes all credit. When it’s bad, he shares responsibility. For this news conference he mustered as many of his top brass as he apparently could find to stand silently behind him. Some haven’t been seen in years, such as First Deputy George Grasso, whom Kelly pulled from the crypt.

The gist of Kelly’s story was that an undercover cop inside the nightclub heard one of four men say he was going to get his gun. [Law enforcement officials say three of the four have gun-related arrests.]

Following those three to their car [The fourth — the one supposedly with the gun — disappeared], the cops confronted them, whereupon the driver rammed two unmarked police vehicles, leading the cops to open fire.

An equally likely scenario, as described by a former top police official, might be that the cops, in plain clothes, approached the car with guns drawn, and the driver, not knowing they were cops, attempted to escape by putting the car in reverse, and rammed the police cars.

Whether the fourth man with the gun exists or is a cousin of the mysterious black man who appeared in the Bronx 12 years ago at the side of a dying Anthony Baez, never to be seen again, remains to be seen. Baez, an asthmatic, died after police officer Frank Livoti had placed him in a choke-hold. The two cops who told of the mysterious black man were subsequently dismissed from the force for lying.

In contrast to Safir and Giuliani, Kelly has a relationship with many black officials, stemming from his 16 months as police commissioner under former Mayor David Dinkins. One of them is Sharpton. In 1997 when Sharpton ran for mayor against Giuliani, he told this reporter, then writing this column for Newsday, that if elected he would consider a white man like Kelly for police commissioner.

According to the autobiography of Kelly’s successor/predecessor Bill Bratton, who refused to meet with Sharpton when he became commissioner in 1994, Sharpton answered, “Who is Bratton to say he will not meet with me? [Ray] Kelly came to Brooklyn to eat grits with me.”

As of this writing, Sharpton has compared the Queens shooting to one on the New Jersey Turnpike, where troopers stopped a van with four black basketball players. When the driver accidentally put the car in reverse, the troopers opened fire, firing 11 shots, wounding all four.

Significantly, he has not compared the Queens shooting to that of Diallo.

Said a former top police official, “That’s probably out of respect for Kelly.”

Significantly, too, Kelly’s response to the Queens shooting is different from the Stansbury shooting. Twelve hours after that shooting, Kelly held a news conference, saying, “There appears to be no justification.”

While the city’s newspapers fawned on him for his so-called candor, virtually every law enforcement official in town privately criticized what many called his rush to judgment. Their judgment appeared vindicated when a Brooklyn grand jury declined to indict the cop who shot him, accepting his account that the shooting was accidental.

For the Queens shootings, Kelly took a different tack. Asked on Saturday whether they were justified, Kelly said, “We’re not in a position to characterize the shootings at this time,” and cited a grand jury investigation by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

Finally, let’s turn to Brown, who has promised his investigation will be “full, fair and complete.”

He has been on the case since his senior staff telephoned him at 5 A.M. Saturday from the scene. A former appellate judge and district attorney for 15 years, Brown may now have to overcome a perception that he is too close to the police, a perception stemming from his salad days as D.A. when he rushed enthusiastically to crime scenes.

Last year, some felt he was slow to prosecute retired detective John Malik, who fatally shot an 18-year-old Mexican immigrant while fooling around with his gun as the 18-year-old waited on him in a deli. Nonetheless, Brown indicted Malik for manslaughter, to which Malik pleaded guilty and was sent to prison.

A law enforcement official who asked for anonymity said of Brown: “All eyes are on him. This case will be true test of his fortitude. While he wants to be friends with the cops, there has to be a level of separation for him to do this properly.”