Aug. 20, 1991

5:05 P.M: Caller to 911: "They're heading down to my house. They're breaking the windows, please come!"

5:08 P.M: Caller: "They're breaking all the windows on my block. ... Where are the police?"

5:09 P.M: Caller: "Please get the police here. ... I am shaking. It's a riot."

7:40 P.M: Caller: "It's a pogrom. ... If we have to wait for the killings, we're finished. ... I'm not safe in my house. ... I want to get out."

Almost exactly two years ago, a Jewish resident in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn placed this series of calls to the police, only to receive no response. Such was the fate of most who placed emergency calls during a four-day riot that shook the area. In the course of that same disturbance, an antisemitic mob of black youths stabbed and killed a young orthodox Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum. Other Jews were injured. Since that time only one man has been arrested, charged with the Rosenbaum murder, and acquitted.

Now Richard H. Girgenti, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's director of criminal justice, has produced an extraordinary 600-page report on the Crown Heights pogrom. Calling the riot "the most extensive racial unrest in New York City in over twenty years," Girgenti explains that it was a "disturbance" that differed from previous riots in one important way: It was directed only at Jews.

Who's to blame? The report presents a scathing indictment of Mayor David Dinkins and his disorganized, bumbling and tentative administration. Dinkins and his police department were either unable or unwilling to quell the riot. The state report also casts serious doubt on the claim of Dinkins and his chief aides that for the first three days of the riot, they had no idea that the Hasidic Jews of Crown Heights were in dire danger.

The study's implicit questions are plain: What did Dinkins' top-ranking aides know? When did they know it? And what did they tell the mayor? Girgenti, to be sure, notes that Dinkins himself shouldn't have needed aides in order to remain informed: Live television and radio broadcasts provided ample information on the unrest in Crown Heights.

The riot was triggered on the evening of Aug. 19, 1991, when a car that formed part of the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, spiritual leader of the Lubavitcher sect, accidentally struck and killed a black child, Gavin Cato. Almost immediately, black youths took to the streets of Crown Heights, a neighborhood in which Jews and blacks live together. The stabbing of the 29-year-old Rosenbaum by a gang of black youths yelling "get the Jew" occurred a few hours later.

Why did the violence continue for nearly four days? Girgenti faults former New York City police commissioner Lee Brown -- now President Clinton's drug czar -- for reassuring Dinkins that the situation in Crown Heights was under control: "He {Brown} simply repeated to the Mayor assurances that had been given to him by others. These assurances did not serve the Mayor well."

Deputy Mayor for Criminal Justice Milton Mollen doesn't come off much better. Although members of the Hasidic community claim they called Mollen on Monday and Tuesday to report they lacked adequate police protection, Mollen claims he doesn't remember such calls. Even on the second day of the riot, Mollen says he failed to communicate with the police department. "I assumed the police had control of the situation," he said. Not until utter chaos had reigned in the streets of Crown Heights for two full days did Mollen tell Brown to put down the riot.

Mayoral Assistant Herbert Block was meant to be a link between Dinkins and the Jewish community. Yet, although representatives of the Hasidic community told Girgenti that they telephoned Block on both Monday and Tuesday protesting a manifest lack of police protection, Block denies receiving the phone calls. The report holds Block's account "isn't credible."

Two genuine heroes emerge in the pages of the generally dispiriting report: Joseph Gonzales, director of the emergency branch of the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit, and Robert Brennan, a member of Gonzales's staff.

On Monday night, shortly after Rosenbaum had been stabbed, Brennan arrived in Crown Heights and told the NYPD communications division the situation was "extremely serious" . He also reported to the City Hall Police Desk that more police were needed. The Police Desk, in turn, notified Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch (who now heads Dinkins's reelection campaign) and the mayor's own security detail.

On Monday and again on Tuesday, Gonzales, according to the report, personally told both Lynch and Michael Kharfen, Gonzales's own boss, that the situation in Crown Heights was "out of control" and that the police were not in command of the streets. Brennan, meanwhile, called Lynch on Tuesday night and told him he personally had been bombarded by bricks. Brennan went on to describe seeing -- for the first time in his life -- police actually fleeing the scene of a crime: "They gave up their positions and ran."

That same day, after having been hit in the face and actually losing consciousness, Brennan, according to Girgenti, again called Lynch, telling the deputy mayor, "All hell is breaking loose." Brennan relayed the same message to Kharfen. Meanwhile, Gonzales also told Kharfen that the riot wasn't being controlled.

But Lynch maintained to Girgenti that he "did not recall being told by anyone on Monday or Tuesday that the police were not reacting or that things were out of control." Lynch -- like the mayor -- claims it wasn't until Wednesday that he began to understand the seriousness of the situation. Kharfen also testified that no one told him "the police were ineffective or that events were out of control."

Girgenti takes the Brennan-Gonzales report at face value, noting that "we found no reason to believe that their statements were less than truthful." He goes on to note that the events they related were independently corroborated by other sources.

Girgenti also finds "persuasive" evidence that "top City Hall officials, all of whom were in frequent contact with the Mayor ... were informed that the situation in Crown Heights was not under control." According to Girgenti, "This information was provided ... well before the Mayor" acknowledged having been made aware of these circumstances.

The report's conclusion is plain: "If the Mayor was told, a fundamental question would arise turning on why he did not act."

Now it's up to Attorney General Janet Reno to decide whether she will launch a federal investigation to determine whether the civil rights of the Jewish residents of Crown Heights were violated during the riot.

Reno's impending decision will reveal a fair bit about her independence. If she gives the Rosenbaum case the same treatment accorded the Rodney King episode, she runs the risk of hurting Dinkins's chances for reelection this fall. Moreover, she may find herself examining the past performance of a fellow Clinton Cabinet member -- Lee Brown.

But she would do well to rise above partisan politics and follow the lead of her immediate predecessor, William P. Barr. Before leaving office, Barr instructed Mary Jo White, then acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, to pursue the Crown Heights matter vigorously and not to limit her probe to the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. "Rather," wrote Barr to White, "you should follow the evidence wherever it leads, including any evidence that the community was deprived of its rights for discriminatory reasons."