Divided We Stand

Quiz time: In the history of the New York City Police Department, how many officers have been convicted of committing homicide while on duty?

Let’s see. You probably know that despite the hundreds of indictments over the years, charges like these against cops usually don’t stick. So, what, 25 or so? Maybe a little high. Conservatively, then – ten, twelve?

Try three. In the history of the city. One in 1977, one in 1995, and the most recent, transit officer Paolo Colecchia, in 1997. On July 4, 1996, Colecchia said, he was tipped by an off-duty cop that 25-year-old Nathaniel Levi Gaines Jr. of Yonkers had been stalking a woman on a D train. Others testified that Gaines was merely trying to get back to Westchester after taking in the fireworks. In either event, he was, all agreed, unarmed.

Three. The acquittals, far too many to count, have sometimes been won on novel terms like those used to free Robert Torsney. On Thanksgiving Day, 1976, Torsney answered a domestic-dispute call in an East New York housing project. Fourteen-year-old Randolph Evans asked Torsney if it was his parents’ quarrel that Torsney was there to check out. Torsney promptly shot him in the head. His attorney won his freedom by arguing that he’d suffered at that exact moment from “temporary psycho-motor epilepsy,” something neither Torsney nor any other human has probably suffered from before or since.

Do we understand now why black people are so mad about this? And, with four cops, a victim who cannot now speak for himself, and no eyewitnesses, we shouldn’t assume that convictions are likely in the Amadou Diallo case.

There may be no issue in America so freighted with symbolism as police brutality. Politicians and others can try to take nuanced positions, but the media don’t have much use for nuance, so by the time those positions are distilled into newspaper form, they usually boil down to this: Pols sympathetic to cops are “tough on crime,” which equals good; those sympathetic to victims are “soft on crime,” i.e., bad. Little rhetorical footwork is needed on the part of the former to imply that the latter would sooner see the crime rate shoot back up than permit the cops an occasional, if tragic, error.

Neither of these positions represents reality. In the real world, cops do face psychological pressures that most of us couldn’t begin to bear. And in the real world, black men, virtually all black men, running down to the deli or coming home from fireworks, have good reason to feel their throats go tight whenever they see a cruiser.

The cops have their Rudy; the innocent victims, their Reverend Al. But what the city needs now is some courage in the middle – some leaders who can find a way to defeat the polar rhetoric and carry this wearisome debate to a place where it can do us all some good. Giuliani can’t do it, and clearly doesn’t even want to. Sharpton can’t, either – how many white people, no matter how angry they might feel about the Diallo shooting, are going to attend National Action Network rallies?

The answer is that white politicians have to start talking about police brutality more than they do. Without posturing and screaming, they have to claim some ownership of the issue, because when it’s ceded – by white politicians, by the media – to black politicians, the rest of the world automatically puts it on the “minority issues” shelf, and it never quite sheds the mantle of the politics of protest.

“If white politicians aren’t involved in the debate,” says Comptroller Alan Hevesi, “it’s because they represent constituencies that are substantially white, and it’s not an issue their constituents put at the top of their agenda.” Honestly stated. The point, though, is not to describe the situation but to change it.

Aside from Giuliani (and the soon retiring Pat Moynihan), there are five major white politicians in New York: Hevesi, Senator Chuck Schumer, Public Advocate Mark Green, Council Speaker Peter Vallone, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. All represent more than just homogeneous single districts – Schumer represents the state, Green and Hevesi, the city, and Vallone and Silver serve, in effect, citywide and statewide constituencies.

Silver has been shamefully silent about the Diallo shooting. Green, by contrast, has made police brutality one of his main issues, and last week announced the formation of a panel to look into the dispositions of Civilian Complaint Review Board investigations. Hevesi says he’s kicking around an interesting idea about settlements. Last year, the city paid out $28.3 million in civil awards to victims of police abuse. Right now, those millions don’t come out of the NYPD budget. Hevesi wants to change that. Vallone forced a meeting between Police Commissioner Howard Safir and the City Council’s Black and Latino Caucus to discuss better training. Schumer says he’s working with the U.S. Attorney’s office, which is aiding in the Diallo investigation, and has been working on minority recruitment, for which he’s won federal money.

“I choose to focus not on rhetoric but on constructive solutions,” Schumer says, “because when you get to the level of rhetoric, there is an automatic polarization, fed in part by the media.” True; but focusing on constructive solutions privately arrived at is also a way of avoiding public leadership. Most people, white and black, believe the police should be supported (in ways, incidentally, that even Giuliani doesn’t support them; city cops make less than cops in Suffolk County, which is absurd on its face, and Giuliani’s been his usual snarly self in contract negotiations). Most also believe that cops’ excesses should be punished more than, on average, once per century. These five pols, three of whom want to be the next mayor, have to take some risks and break the rhetorical stalemate that just goes on despite the increasing numbers of resentful white cops and black corpses.

Topic b: myths are difficult to extinguish, but can we please dispense with this silly notion that the vaunted New York press corps is going to eat Hillary Clinton alive? If the Giuliani years have taught us anything about the New York media, it’s that we’re actually fairly easy to tame. Is there anything the New York media can ask her about the past eight years that she hasn’t been asked 8,000 times already? I recall that we were supposed to eat her husband, fresh off a crushing loss to Jerry Brown in the Connecticut primary in 1992, for breakfast. He steamrolled New York. The New York press is setting itself up for a fall, although we’ll probably choose not to notice.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Divided We Stand