New York Mayor's Anti-Crime Strategy Tested By Alleged Police- Beating Case
COMPLAINTS of police brutality have increased each year during Rudolph Giuliani's term, while crime statistics have plummeted.
NEW YORK - When a New York police officer allegedly said, "This is Giuliani time," as he allegedly was brutalizing a Haitian immigrant in a Brooklyn police station, he dramatically highlighted what many critics say is the seamy side of the New York mayor's phenomenal success in reducing crime.
Throughout most of the four years that Rudolph Giuliani has been mayor, complaints about police brutality have risen, especially among minorities, even as four out of five New Yorkers approve of the way the mayor has handled crime.
Last year 80 percent of civilian complaints were made by nonwhite New Yorkers against a police force that is 76 percent white. Only 1 percent of these complaints have led to disciplinary action against police, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The case of Abner Louima, the Haitian who was allegedly sodomized by a police officer wielding a toilet plunger, has shaken Giuliani, who for years had insisted his first instinct was to give police officers the benefit of the doubt in cases of alleged brutality. The mayor, who is up for re-election this fall, yesterday acknowledged a need for wholesale re-education of the entire police force.
"Sometimes when events occur that shock people it allows the kind of change that could not occur before," Giuliani said in announcing the creation of a 28-member task force that will take the lead in a massive effort in sensitivity training. The mayor said it will expose the city's entire 38,000 police officers to several hours of conversation with community critics.
Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and perhaps the most outspoken of the police department's critics, agreed to join the task force because he said the Louima case could be a turning point.
"This case is so egregious and so sadistic that it shocked everybody and now there is a window of opportunity for fundamental change and achieving accountability over the police," said Siegel. But he warned that it was insufficient for the task force to merely "talk to cops."
He and a few other members of the task force are advocating a wholesale change in the way complaints about police brutality are reviewed and how police are disciplined.
A study by the NYCLU of the existing Civilian Complaint Review Board found that from 1993 to 1996 the board substantiated just 4.3 percent of 16,327 complaints. The study said the police commissioner then dismissed nearly half of the cases and that, in the second half of 1994, "the most severe punishment appears to be two cases where officers received the loss of 10-15 days of vacation time."
The Louima case has caused a flood of arrests and a massive personnel shakeup at the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn where the Haitian immigrant allegedly was tortured. Minority police officers, including sergeants and lieutenants, will be transferred into the precinct.
The case has also prompted a federal civil-rights investigation of the New York City Police Department. Louima, who is in the hospital with severe internal injuries, said yesterday he will file a $55 million suit against the city.
"The boldness of this (crime) suggests a mindset that (police) believe they could get away with this extraordinarily heinous offense," said U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter of Brooklyn in announcing this week that the Justice Department will look for a pattern of police supervisors tolerating acts of brutality against civilians.
The success Giuliani has enjoyed in reducing crime since he was elected in 1993 is widely attributed to a "zero-tolerance" policy that empowers police officers to arrest people for minor offices such as urinating in bushes or trespassing in housing projects.
Wave of arrests
The surge in misdemeanor arrests in the city in 1994 and 1995 has no precedent, according to Andrew Karman, a sociology professor at John Jay College. As these arrests have soared, there has been a corresponding decline in violent crime. Murder, for example, has gone down 63 percent.
But Karman said the increasing number of street confrontations between officers and people on the streets has also produced a proportional increase in opportunities for some police to abuse civilians.
"Some officers have gotten the message that they were unleashed, that their handcuffs were taken off," Karman said. "In the Louima case, when the officer said, `It is Giuliani time,' he was saying the rules of the game have changed. He was saying he felt that, `Mr. Louima, you don't have any protectors anymore.' "
The mayor and Police Commissioner Howard Safir insist this was never the message they intended to send to officers in the street. But several experts on the police force agree that there is often a chronic pattern of abusive behavior by police here, a pattern that starts when supervisors tolerate officers who use vulgar language on the street.
"It starts with abusive language. When it is permitted, as it is now, it establishes the attitude among some officers that they can do virtually anything to anbody. This Louima case is the bizarre end of that continuum. It has to be seen as a major opportunity for change," said James Curran, a former police officer who is now dean of special programs at John Jay College, where he runs a program that trains prospective cadets before they enter the police academy.
Police officials in other cities say there is no reason why a sharp reduction in crime has to cause an increase in complaints about police brutality. In Boston, for example, there has been a sharp reduction in both crime and complaints of police brutality in the past four years.
"Police have to show an ability to get people to join with them, rather than being seen as an occupation force," said Sgt. Detective Margo Hill, director of information for the Boston police.
Boston police have enlisted the support of church groups and leaders from the minority community, and have employed former young offenders as "street workers."
In New York City, an attempt at forcing police to do more "community policing" under Guiliani's predecessor, David Dinkins, was a dismal failure.
Indeed, the officer who allegedly assaulted Louima in the bathroom of the Brooklyn police station is reported by his victim to have said: "This is Giuliani time. It is not Dinkins time."
"Many of the people who are attracted to police work in this city want to catch bad guys," said sociologist Karman. "They don't want to work with the community."
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