As crime rates fall in major U.S. cities, some people are concerned that the police are behaving too aggressively, especially against black citizens. New York City, in particular, has been a showcase of anti-crime successes in recent years. But the city is now coping with a growing perception that its police force abuses minorities. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports.
New York, 27 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Demonstrations led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, a black community leader, and other activists calling for fairness from police have become common in New York this year. Sharpton says:
"This is not about black and white but about right and wrong. We are not anti-police but anti-police brutality."
New York has experienced a dramatic drop in crime -- more than 50 percent in seven years. Aggressive policing has been credited with helping to make the city safer. But several prominent cases in the past year in which police were accused of using excessive, even brutal, force have cast a shadow over this success. In particular, police are accused of abusing black citizens.
New York City's Mayor Rudolph Guiliani has made crime fighting one of his key issues and has staunchly defended the police department. Guiliani, who is white, says that it is incorrect to label the police as racially biased based on the recent high-profile cases. And he has sharply criticized activists like Sharpton for what he says is political opportunism.
But the mayor's critics and civic leaders are urging the city to reach out to the black community. They worry that recent cases of innocent black men being tortured or killed by police are polarizing the population along racial lines.
Two trials that recently ended both featured white New York police officers charged with using excessive force against unarmed black men. In the first, policemen were accused of severely beating, and sodomizing with a stick, an unarmed Haitian immigrant (Abner Louima) in a police station. They were convicted.
In the other case, four officers searching for a rapist fired a barrage of bullets to kill an unarmed African immigrant in his apartment building. Officers said they believed the man was reaching for a gun. It turned out he was reaching for his wallet. Those officers were acquitted.
The latest major incident occurred last week, when a 26-year-old black man was shot and killed in an undercover police drug operation. News accounts say the man -- Patrick Dorismond -- was approached by undercover police who asked where they could buy drugs. A fight broke out and Dorismond was shot dead by an undercover policeman.
The latest shooting plays into an already bitter political campaign in New York. Mayor Guiliani is competing with Hillary Clinton, wife of U.S. President Bill Clinton, to represent New York state in the U.S. Senate this autumn. Guiliani quickly defended the officer who fired the fatal bullet and even released information showing that the victim had a criminal record as a child. Mrs. Clinton criticized the mayor for taking sides and dividing the city.
Civic leaders have called on public officials to tone down their rhetoric. Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that public trust between the black and immigrant communities and the police department needs to be restored. "There is a deep-seated fear of police and tension that is rising between community and police, particularly when police officers are confronting, stopping and frisking young African-American and Hispanic men. And you find now a situation where unarmed, wholly innocent people are losing their lives, not even in police custody, but just through altercations with undercover cops. This is a serious, serious matter. It is ripe for racial demagogues to rush in."
These New York cases, taken together, have sparked a national discussion of the use of force by police officers. But some experts say there are important differences in the cases. Speaking to RFE/RL in a telephone interview, Ian Weinstein, a criminal defense expert at Fordham Law School, said that the incident involving the Haitian immigrant was a clear case of torture, and the officers involved were rightly punished.
But he says the second case, involving the African immigrant Amadou Diallo, is more complex.
"Mr. Diallo's shooting was much more difficult from a legal standpoint because it happened so quickly. The police officers jumped out of a car. It was nighttime. They reacted very quickly. I think that it's hard to understand how they reasonably believed that a wallet was a gun. Yet in our criminal justice system, so long as the jury had a reasonable doubt about the fact that they did it with the intent to kill the man, they had to be acquitted."
The public debate centers on whether police presumed Diallo and more recently Dorismond to be armed and dangerous -- and then reacted with excessive force -- merely because the two men were black. That would amount to racial profiling -- targeting people of certain races for crime searches.
Civil rights groups charge that police officers unfairly stop, search and confront blacks and Hispanics without reasonable cause far more frequently than they do whites. Police officers respond that many minority neighborhoods are also high crime areas, and people are simply stopped more frequently in those neighborhoods.
Dennis Walcott is the president of the New York Urban League. He says that in the killing of Dorismond, it is premature to assume that racial profiling was involved.
"Racial profiling can become an easy catchphrase. And I think it's very difficult to analyze what's in the mind of the officer because of the demographic of who that drug dealer or who that perpetrator may be in a certain area. But at the same time, obviously something went tragically wrong in this particular case."
Amnesty International has called for an inquiry into police brutality in the United States. In a report done in 1996, it detailed more than 30 cases where New York City police officers had shot or injured suspects, including children, under disputed circumstances. Nearly all the victims were members of racial minorities. Amnesty International says racial minorities bear the brunt of police brutality in many cities.
Police say that amid all the publicity about the shootings, one fact is overlooked. Fatal police shootings in New York are at an all-time low, with 11 total last year. And crime has been significantly reduced.
Yet while New York's police may deserve much of the credit for this trend in New York, it is important to note that reduced crime is a nationwide trend, and other factors have also contributed to it. These include longer prison sentences, a booming economy, and changing attitudes toward drugs.
Other U.S. cities, such as Boston and San Diego, have experienced crime reductions equal to if not greater than New York's -- but without pursuing the same aggressive policy on police work.