One Police Plaza

Chief Al Seedman: Legend and Fact

May 20, 2013

The flamboyant former Chief of Detectives Al Seedman died last week at the age of 94, and a legend was already in the making.

In the NY Times, Seedman was eulogized as the tough-talking, cigar chomping, first and only Jewish Chief of Detectives who, as the novelist Jerome Charyn put it, “seemed more Irish than the Irish.”

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a statement, saying Seedman “came to epitomize for investigators the world over the image of a no-nonsense Chief determined to get his man.”

Then, thinking perhaps of the John Ford movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and its immortalized line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” Kelly, added of Seedman: “The image and reality were one and the same.”

But contrary to Kelly’s words, for Seedman -— like much of the NYPD — image and reality were not one and the same. The legend was not the fact.

Seedman may have been one tough cop on the street, but when it came to taking responsibility for the most controversial decision of his career, he ran away and hid. Then he let someone else take the heat.

That decision occurred on April, 14, 1972, when Seedman ordered the release of 16 suspects in the fatal shooting of Police Officer Philip Cardillo inside Nation of Islam Mosque 7 in Harlem -— a shooting that remains unsolved and still resonates within the police department today, 41 years later.

Seedman hid his role, allowing then Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Ward — who a decade later would become the city’s first black police commissioner — to be blamed.

Feelings towards Ward within the department at that time then became so hostile that the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association wrote in the PBA newsletter that Ward “should either resign or be fired.”

The truth was discovered 11 years later, in 1983, after Mayor Ed Koch announced Ward’s appointment as police commissioner.

Newsday reporter Gerald McKelvey found it in a secret and long-hidden police document, known as the Blue Book, which was the department’s internal investigation of the shooting.

The document said that Seedman had made “the reluctant decision” to release the suspects to stem a riot raging outside the mosque because of the heavy police presence following Cardillo’s shooting.

The Blue Book appeared to explain, if not justify, Seedman’s order by saying that he was influenced by three men — Ward, newly elected Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrahkan, all of whom “took the position that the street would return to normal if the police were removed from the area including the mosque.”

After the Newsday story appeared, this reporter caught up with Seedman, who had quit the department two weeks after Cardillo’s shooting — probably because he feared repercussions from his order.

“What is this document?” he said, when asked about the Blue Book. “I never heard of it.”

But, informed of the Blue Book’s contents, he acknowledged his order to release the suspects. When asked why he hadn’t acknowledged his role at the time and instead allowed Ward to twist in the wind for the next 11 years, he answered, “What good would it have done?”

What good, indeed!

Despite his acknowledgement, Seedman’s friends in the Shomrim Society of Jewish police officers continue to maintain that he was pressured into his decision by Ward, Rangel and Farrakhan.

Subsequent books on the mosque shooting — as well as Seedman’s autobiography, written with Peter Hellman in 1974 — make no mention that the order to release the suspects was Seedman’s.

Subsequent articles about him in the mainstream media also failed to acknowledge his role.

Then, two years ago, in an updated version of his autobiography, to be released on the 39th anniversary of the mosque shooting, Seedman offered a new version of why he retired so suddenly, two weeks after Cardillo’s shooting.

The NY Times headlined its online column of Mar. 24, 2011: “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” for his resignation — which Seedman had hidden from his co-author Hellman in the first edition.

The culprit: Seedman’s boss, then Chief Inspector Michael Codd, who Seedman had contacted from the mosque at the height of the riot.

An email from Hellman put it this way: Seedman resigned because of a “feeling of betrayal over his being ordered by Chief Inspector Mike Codd by phone to get out of the mosque.”

So I called up Seedman, who was living in Florida. Again, I asked him about his order to release the mosque suspects.

Only then, at age 92, did Seedman for the first time publicly exonerate Ward.

“That was my decision,” he said. He [Ward] had nothing to do with my decision. Nothing whatsoever.”

Legend and fact collided again last week when Commissioner Kelly and State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the arrests of 16 Palestinians for smuggling cigarettes, earning them an estimated profit of $55 million.

Kelly stated that three of the cigarette suspects were also suspected terrorists.

Kelly said that Mohannad Seif had once lived in the same building as Mousa Abu Marzouk, the personal secretary to the chief fundraiser of the terrorist group Hamas, who was deported in 1997.

Kelly described a second cigarette smuggler, Muaffaq Askar, as a “confidant” of Rashid Baz, who was convicted of fatally shooting an Hasidic Jew on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1995.

He said that a third, Youssef Odeh, had financial ties to Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik currently serving a life sentence for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

“This case started because we were being vigilant about terrorism,” Kelly said. “We discovered that individuals who were on our radar for links to known terrors were engaged in a massive raid on the New York treasury.”

Well, here’s another take on that.

The NYPD did indeed have its eye on at least three of them.

Take Askar, who sources say was under investigation by the NYPD as early 2003.

According to a 2006 NYPD Intelligence Document obtained by this column and by the Associated Press as part of its Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the NYPD’s spying on Muslim New Yorkers, Askar was described as a “Tier Two Person of Interest.”

He was listed as:

The NYPD was so on Askar’s case that according to his lawyer, Lamis Jamal Deek, they at one point stripped-searched him and handcuffed his 14-year-old son to a radiator for five hours in a police precinct.

Question: So what happened? After ten years of surveillance did the NYPD lose interest in him?

Or did the NYPD just lose him?

With all these terrorism possibilities hanging over him, how was Askar able to elude the NYPD’s watchful eyes, ears and nose and join a cigarette smuggling ring that operated for seven years, earning a profit of $55 million?

A SMALL MIRACLE: The Daily News published a front-page story Sunday detailing the alleged abuses of Brooklyn North narcotics lieutenant Daniel Sbarra.

The News says Sbarra has 60 lawsuits against him, costing the city $500,000 in settlements. It adds that Sbarra also has 30 civilian complaints and has been the target of between five to 10 Internal Affairs investigations.

While great on police reporting, the News under Ray Kelly never clinches the deal either with an editorial or with allowing its reporters to follow through on their own stories. f So will a bigger miracle occur? Will the News write an editorial about Sbarra’s abuses?

Will an even bigger miracle occur? Will the News allow its reporters to follow the story and investigate the apparently systemic failings of IAB to discipline Sbarra and other officers like him?

Will the biggest miracle yet occur? Will the News allow its reporters to investigate why Commissioner Kelly continues to support him?

Edited by Donald Forst


Copyright © 2013 Leonard Levitt