One Police Plaza

New York's Losing Game: The Politics of Race and Ethnicity

January 23, 2017

Even without Donald Trump, developments last week on three pending cases in Washington and New York reflect the divisiveness of race, ethnicity and politics here in the city.

Let’s start with the police department trial of Richard Haste, a white cop who in 2012 fatally shot black teenager Ramarley Graham in the bathroom of his Bronx apartment, mistakenly believing Graham had a gun.

Bronx grand jurors did not indict Haste in 2013 after an initial indictment was thrown out due to a technicality. Federal prosecutors did not seek an indictment against Haste on civil rights charges. Two subsequent reports by the NYPD’s Firearms Review Board — one led by former Chief of Department Phillip Banks that the department refuses to acknowledge — faulted Haste, not for shooting Graham, but for his tactics that led to it.

In her opening statement, department advocate Beth Douglas called for the dismissal of Haste, who is charged with exercising “poor tactical judgment.” The word around Police Plaza is that Mayor Bill de Blasio wants Haste dismissed. That suggests that Commissioner James O’Neill, who has the final say, will follow the mayor’s lead, as he has since de Blasio appointed him commissioner four months ago.

If that’s the case — if the decision to fire Haste is a foregone conclusion — this trial is mere theater, meant to gull the public into believing there’s a semblance of fairness and objectivity within the department.

NYPD Deputy Trials Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado could make it easier for O’Neill by finding Haste guilty and recommending his firing. That way O’Neill, who faces his first high-profile trial decision since becoming commissioner in September, can say he’s merely following the trial court judge’s recommendation.

If, on the other hand, Maldonado recommends a lesser penalty, O’Neill can overrule her. That’s rare but there is precedent. Arnold Kriss, trials commissioner between 1978 and 1982 under then-NYPD Commissioner Robert McGuire, said McGuire never overruled him. Ray Koshetz, trials commissioner between 1988 and 2002, says then-Commissioner Bill Bratton did it twice, firing three cops for lesser misconduct. Bratton fired Carol Shaya after she appeared nude in the August 1994 issue of Playboy, despite her having received authorization for off-duty employment from her commanding officer. And he fired Gilberto Ildefonso and Hector Collazo for beating Fred the Beagle, the 1st Precinct’s dog, and passing him off as a stray to the ASPCA, which euthanized him.

People who know Haste have described him as a “hothead,” although he seemed cool and articulate as he testified last Friday. He termed his shooting of Graham “tragic,” but said he acted appropriately in protecting himself and his team while making no mention of the tragedy for Graham’s family.

In NYPD context, the word “tragic” is clichéd and meaningless. After the fatal police shooting of unarmed Amadou Diallo in 1999, perhaps the most wanton incident of brutality in the department’s history, “a tragedy, not a crime” was the phrase the department used to justify the shooting.

And what of the political calculus that may determine what happens to Haste? If you value the feelings of black New Yorkers more than those of the NYPD, you fire Haste. If you value the feelings of the NYPD more than those of black New Yorkers, you penalize him harshly but allow him to keep his job. If you’re de Blasio, who needs the support of the black voters in his re-election bid this year, it’s a no brainer.

Case number two comes from federal court in Brooklyn. In the final days of the Obama administration, Justice Department prosecutors came up from Washington to reconvene a dormant grand jury on Wednesday to hear two cop witnesses testify against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the “chokehold” death of Eric Garner in Staten Island nearly three years ago.

Like Haste, grand jurors in Staten Island did not indict Pantaleo. Since then, the feds have been weighing an indictment on civil rights charges. Although Brooklyn prosecutors under then-U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch apparently felt no case could be made, Lynch, who subsequently became U.S. attorney general, recently reassigned the case to civil rights prosecutors in Washington, an indication that a political decision was made to seek an indictment.

How else to explain this last-minute end run to Brooklyn, planting a racial roadside bomb for Lynch’s successor to defuse?

Finally, there’s President Obama’s commutation of the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera last week. Rivera was the leader of the FALN, a Puerto Rican independence group. From 1974 to 1983, the group claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings across the country. Its deadliest attack occurred at lunchtime at NYC’s historic Fraunces Tavern, headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The attack killed four people and injured more than 60.

The FBI arrested Lopez Rivera in 1981. At his trial in 1983, Judge Thomas McMillen called him an un-rehabilitated revolutionary” and sentenced him to 55 years in prison. Another 15 years were added after he planned two escapes from Leavenworth prison.

In 1999, he declined an offer of clemency from President Bill Clinton, refusing to renounce violence. Joe Connor, whose father was killed in the Fraunces Tavern bombing, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, at Lopez Rivera’s parole hearing in 2011, he offered “not a shred of remorse or contrition.”

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said last week she “cried with joy” upon hearing of the commutation. Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” said he was “sobbing with gratitude.”

And the city’s Panderer-in Chief, Mayor de Blasio, tweeted: “Thank you, POTUS for freeing Oscar Lopez Rivera. Congratulations for all who fought for this day.”

Call me ignorant, but I don’t get it.


Copyright © 2017 Leonard Levitt