Pubdate: Sat, 27 Mar 1999
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1999 The New York Times Company
Contact:  http://www.nytimes.com/
Forum: http://forums.nytimes.com/comment/
Author: Robert D. McFadden

ELITE POLICE UNIT IN DIALLO SLAYING GETS AN OVERHAUL

After weeks of protests over the combative police policies of the Giuliani
administration, Commissioner Howard Safir yesterday unveiled major changes
in the Street Crime Unit aimed at averting confrontations like that in
which four white officers gunned down Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man,
last month. 

Commissioner Safir, reflecting Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's more
conciliatory approach to the biggest crisis of his tenure, said that 50 of
the 380 officers in the overwhelmingly white plainclothes unit would be
replaced with minority members, and that all of its officers hereafter
would work in uniform to minimize potentially deadly confusion in
heat-of-the moment face-offs on the streets.

The addition of minority members to a unit that often works in minority
communities appeared to provide advantages, while the change to uniforms,
some said, could hinder officers who often rely on stealth.

Mr. Safir said the unit, whose members roam in unmarked cars searching for
crimes and suspected robbers, rapists and gunmen, has made 67 percent fewer
arrests since the shooting of Mr. Diallo on Feb. 4, apparently because its
officers have been affected by the storm of criticism and protest. The unit
has been widely accused of stopping an inordinate number of black and
Hispanic citizens, many of whom tell of abuses by officers who might be
mistaken for street toughs.

"The thinking is that the community's concerns were that Street Crime
officers in plainclothes were not necessarily recognizable," Mr. Safir said
at a news conference after another day of protests outside Police
Headquarters, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson was one of 216 people arrested,
bringing the total to 1,009 over the past two-and-a-half weeks.

As more than a thousand people chanted and cheered under a warm spring sun,
embracing reports that a Bronx grand jury had indicted the four Street
Crime officers on murder charges in the death of Mr. Diallo, there seemed
to be a change in the mood of the crowd, from the anger and vitriol of
previous days to one of victory and even pride in what had been accomplished.

"We go to jail for the American dream," Mr. Jackson told the crowd before
submitting to the plastic handcuffs and the orchestrated arrest. "This is a
great day. This is a day of joy. This is a day of hope. Diallo bore the
crucifixion in his body. That crucifixion has been turned to resurrection."

Mayor Giuliani, who has held a series of meetings with minority leaders in
recent days and has changed a caustic and dismissive tone to one more
balanced and conciliatory, met at Gracie Mansion last night with 10 members
of the City Council's Black and Latino caucus.

Afterward, facing reporters, the Mayor was soft-spoken, almost contrite, as
he described the meeting as "the beginning of an important dialogue in
which we come to a better understanding of how to deal with the difficult
situations that confront us."

Asked if he should have met with the group earlier, Mr. Giuliani, who has
never cultivated close ties to black and Hispanic elected and civic
leaders, said:

"Sure, I wish we'd had this meeting earlier. It might be I made a mistake
in not being more open to meetings like this."

A day after the reported indictments, as the Mayor scheduled more meetings
with minority leaders, including the State Comptroller, H. Carl McCall, and
as Commissioner Safir outlined reforms in the Street Crime Unit, the Diallo
case, which has dominated the political dialogue in New York for weeks,
seemed subtly to have turned a corner.

Gov. George E. Pataki, at a breakfast in Manhattan, reiterated a backhanded
rebuke of the Mayor and Mr. Safir. He praised both for "an outstanding job"
that had made "the safest streets since the 60's." But he added: "We have
to listen to those who disagree with us. We have to accept criticism. We
have to be willing to have a dialogue, even when we ultimately disagree."

City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, a Democrat who is expected to run for
Mayor when Mr. Giuliani departs, said at a luncheon yesterday that he used
to think that racism in the Police Department was limited and sporadic, but
that he had now come to believe that there was a "systemic" problem in some
communities, and that the Mayor and his opponents needed to "swallow their
hostility toward one another" and work out problems together.

The Bronx District Attorney, Robert T. Johnson, refused again yesterday, as
he had on Thursday, to confirm reports that the four officers  Sean
Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy  had been
indicted on second-degree murder charges in the death of Mr. Diallo, who
was slain in a hail of 41 bullets outside his building at 1157 Wheeler
Avenue in the Bronx.

The officers, on the advice of their lawyer, did not testify before the
grand jury and thus offered no justification for the shooting. While they
have never said publicly what happened, a lawyer who represented them early
in the case said they believed Mr. Diallo had a gun and shot him in
self-defense. Although the indictments remain sealed, a lawyer with
knowledge of the case and a law enforcement official confirmed Thursday
night that the grand jury had voted the indictments, and they noted
yesterday that the indictments probably would be unsealed on Tuesday.

Officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity cited several possible
reasons for Mr. Johnson's delay in making the indictments public.

For one, they said, the prosecutor hoped that Mr. Diallo's relatives would
be in court for the arraignment. Mr. Diallo's mother and other family
members were expected to arrive in New York from Conakry, Guinea, on Monday.

By coincidence, moreover, another notorious case against four white police
officers  these accused of attacking the Haitian immigrant Abner Louima
last year  is to open with jury selection in Federal court in Brooklyn on
Monday, and Marvyn M. Kornberg, who represents Officer Carroll in the
Diallo case, must be there because he also represents an officer in the
Louima case.

Other reasons for delaying the unsealing, officials said, are technical and
logistical. Many details remain to be worked out for the surrender of the
officers, who would most likely turn themselves in at a Bronx precinct
station house, where their arrests would be processed, and then be
transferred to State Supreme Court on the Grand Concourse for arraignment.
They have been assigned to desk duty, but would be suspended when the
indictments were made public.

Finally, the officials said, the Bronx District Attorney is probably
proceeding with great caution to draw up the indictments properly to avoid
any procedural errors. When Officer Francis X. Livoti was first indicted in
1994 in the death of Anthony Baez, on whom he was said to have used an
illegal choke-hold, the indictment was thrown out because of a clerical
error in its drafting.

Commissioner Safir, who has been under fire himself for trips to California
during the growing protests, said at his news conference yesterday that 50
of the officers assigned to the Street Crime Unit would be transferred to
robbery squads and replaced with minority members, dramatically
transforming the composition of the unit.

In addition to placing all of the unit's officers in uniform, making them
instantly recognizable to the public, the Commissioner said he intended to
give the officers more supervision, changing the ratio of one supervisor
for every four officers to one supervisor for every three officers.
Moreover, he said, all of the members will be promoted to
detective-specialists, giving them a raise. He did not specify the amount.

Mr. Safir's spokeswoman, Marilyn Mode, said that the higher title and
higher pay would attract a higher caliber of officer to the unit.

"He wants to create a career path," Ms. Mode said of the Commissioner, "and
he feels that there has not been a career path, and that has deterred
officers from pursuing assignment to the Street Crime Unit."

Mr. Safir said he had ordered the changes after meetings with various
community and political leaders, including one yesterday with C. Virginia
Fields, the Manhattan Borough President, who has been among the most ardent
critics.

Mr. Safir said that in the seven weeks since the Diallo shooting, the
Street Crime Unit had recorded a precipitous drop of 67 percent in arrests.
The number of stop-and-frisk reports filled out by officers also has
dropped sharply. Meanwhile, he said, shootings have increased in areas
where the unit operates.

"I can only speculate to the fact that the individuals in Street Crime are
concerned about taking enforcement action for being criticized," Mr. Safir
said. "The media has been relentless on vilifying Street Crime, and I think
that this has definitely had an effect."

The Commissioner's moves drew praise from the Mayor and other elected
officials, including the City Council Speaker, Peter F. Vallone.

But many police officers, piqued for years over what many of them regard as
the Giuliani administration's tightfistedness in wages and other benefits,
were puzzled and hurt by the Commissioner's plan to give promotions and
raises only to the Street Crime officers.

"You mean all we had to do to get a raise was shoot an unarmed guy 41
times?" said one officer at Police Headquarters, who spoke on the condition
of anonymity. "Why didn't he tell us earlier? Four cops in that unit just
did something terrible  even if it was a mistake, it was just awful  so
everyone in the unit gets raises? It's absurd."

Many officers also questioned the wisdom of having the unit's officers wear
uniforms instead of street clothes. Stealth is an advantage, allowing
officers to descend quickly on suspected drug dealers or gunmen, while
uniforms will only make them conspicuous.

But adding minority members to a unit that has been almost exclusively
white was widely praised by officers.

"Street crimes works in neighborhoods that are mostly black or Spanish,"
one officer said. "So if the officers are all suburban cowboys, it's not
going to work. The community is going to be resistant. The cops are going
to be more anxious. Common sense tells you that if you have a more diverse
unit, the cops are almost certain to treat people on the street more
respectfully."

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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart