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  Trial Puts Giuliani, NYPD on Defensive

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in February reacting to the death of Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant allegedly slain by undercover police. (AP)
By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 1999; Page A2

NEW YORK, March 29 They were both unarmed immigrants with black skin. They both ran afoul of police officers with white skin. Abner Louima survived to tell his tale; Amadou Diallo was not so fortunate. But now the two victims have been paired by politics, as exhibits A and B in an explosive political campaign against Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the New York Police Department.

In a painful convergence for Giuliani and the NYPD, jury selection began today in the trial of four officers charged with the August 1997 torturing of Louima just as indictments were announced against four officers who gunned down Diallo last month. The fiery Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been leading daily protests ever since the Diallo shooting, wasted no time trying to link the two cases into a larger chain of police brutality and racism.

"It was God's will that the Diallo indictments are coming down now that the Louima trial is beginning," Sharpton said. "God has a way of making these issues come to light."

The two cases are connected in the mind of many New Yorkers, whether or not they should be. And they have created a political crisis for Giuliani, the abrasive former prosecutor whose formerly stratospheric approval ratings dipped to 40 percent in a recent Daily News poll.

The mayor still gets credit for winning the war on crime in New York, but there is a growing perception here that the civil liberties of minorities have suffered collateral damage during that war. Only 26 percent of New Yorkers polled by the Daily News said they think the mayor deals fairly with people from all different racial and ethnic groups.

In fact, the two cases have important dissimilarities. Louima was allegedly sodomized with a stick while in custody in a Brooklyn station house, while Diallo was cut down in a fusillade of 41 bullets outside his Bronx apartment building. Giuliani immediately condemned the officers linked to the Louima case, but he has pointedly refused to prejudge the officers in the Diallo case. The police officers accused in the Louima case have denied the allegations of depraved brutality; the Diallo cops admit the shooting, but have said through lawyers that they thought Diallo was reaching for a gun when they encountered him while searching the neighborhood for a serial rapist.

Marvyn Kornberg, a Queens attorney, is representing Justin Volpe, the officer accused of perforating Louima's rectum with a stick, as well as Sean Carroll, one of the officers who shot Diallo. He said the only thing the two cases have in common is politics at a time when Giuliani is mulling a race for Senate in New York, possibly against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It's open season on police officers in New York right now," Kornberg said. "The mayor of the city is going under on this issue, and his enemies aren't going to let it go."

Sharpton announced today that what have become daily protest rallies will now shift to the Bronx and Brooklyn courthouses, but there was one last protest at police headquarters, with another 166 arrests for civil disobedience and another barrage of signs blasting "Fuhrer Rudy" and "Adolf Giuliani."

Ron White, 62, who works with at-risk minority youths at his Queens church, summed up the general tenor with his sign: "We're Not Anti-Police; We're Anti-Police State."

"Sure, crime is down. There wasn't much crime in the Soviet Union, either," White said. "Unfortunately, our mayor has reinforced the attitude that police can do whatever they want to young black males as long as the crime rate goes down. That's got to stop."

There is a widespread perception in minority communities that while most NYPD officers do not sodomize suspects in custody, too many of them do assume the worst about minorities they encounter on the street. That perception may explain why the Diallo protests have gathered steam over the last seven weeks, while the Louima protests petered out in 1997. The mayor's handling of the two cases has made a difference as well.

He instantly appointed a task force to investigate the Louima incident, even though he later rejected the task force's suggestions that the incident reflected larger racial problems within the NYPD.

But for weeks after Diallo's death, Giuliani lashed out at his critics in typically argumentative fashion, ridiculing the rallies as publicity stunts, rattling off statistics to show that police shootings have declined during his tenure. But in recent days, the mayor finally agreed to meet with several prominent black leaders, including Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and state Comptroller Carl McCall. He conceded that he may have been too quick to dismiss his critics and admitted that many minorities believe the police are not on their side.

The most surprising move has been the mayor's shake-up of the NYPD's controversial Street Crimes Unit, which included all four officers who fired at Diallo. The small plainclothes unit, which is responsible for 40 percent of the NYPD's gun arrests, is renowned for its stop-and-frisk tactics and federal civil rights officials are investigating whether it has violated minority rights. So Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who is under fire for accepting a corporate junket to the Oscars, has agreed to put the unit back in uniform, and is adding 50 minority officers to its ranks.

However, Safir also complained that the unit's arrests have declined by 67 percent since Diallo was killed on Feb. 4 and that shootings and murders have begun to creep up citywide after huge declines over the last several years. He and Giuliani said the unit's officers have become reluctant to make arrests for fear of criticism, but they raised indirectly the same question raised directly by the protests: Is there an inevitable trade-off between reducing crime and respecting civil liberties?

Giuliani says no. Even Sharpton says it is not inevitable. But many ordinary New Yorkers, black and white, believe it defies common sense to expect officers to try to prevent crime without expecting them occasionally to harass some innocent citizens. In the Giuliani era, the NYPD has become a much more aggressive agency, cracking down on mischief-makers ranging from squeegee men to turnstile jumpers to kids hanging out on street corners for no apparent reason.

And white New Yorkers are much more likely to think the trade-off is worth it.

"All I know is, this city is a lot safer than it was," said Jimmy Katehis, 29, a white aircraft mechanic from Queens. "I feel bad about that guy getting shot, but mistakes happen when you're trying to get something done . . . You know, I like Giuliani. He's got attitude, but in New York, if you don't have attitude, you can't get anything done."

The mayor certainly does have attitude, and that often polarizing attitude infuriates his critics. In several interviews at today's protest, anti-Giuliani demonstrators referred to the famous allegation that during the attack on Louima, one officer yelled: "It's Giuliani Time!" That phrase, they said, is symptomatic of the problems at the NYPD.

"They think Giuliani has given them free rein to beat minorities," said Bill Lord, a former real estate developer from Harlem. "They think it's still Giuliani time."

The only problem is, that allegation turned out to be a myth. There is no evidence the alleged brutalization of Louima was done in Giuliani's name.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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