Eleanor Bumpurs, 66, died in vain -- on that no one disagrees. Not the mayor, who offered condolences to her children. Not the social workers who failed to come to her rescue. Not the police chief, who said she reminded him of his mother.
The grandmother, poor, black, arthritic and mentally ill, was shot by a white policeman last Oct. 26 after six police officers with helmets, bulletproof vests, gas masks, Plexiglas shields, a six-foot pronged restraining pole and a shotgun charged into her apartment during an eviction proceeding.
The policeman, Steven Sullivan, a 19-year veteran, was indicted Jan. 31 on charges of second-degree manslaughter. Bumpurs was described as wielding a 10-inch kitchen knife when Sullivan fired two shotgun blasts at her.
The case has caused a sensation in the city, fueling an ugly undercurrent of racial tension and aggravating longstanding discontent over crime, bureaucratic bungling and a dire shortage of housing for the poor.
It has created a sensitive political issue for Mayor Edward I. Koch, who is up for reelection this year and must steer between hostile blacks and a vocal law-and-order contingent.
Thursday, 5,000 to 10,000 police officers gathered in an angry demonstration outside the Bronx Supreme Court offices of District Attorney Mario Merola to protest the indictment. Shouting "Sullivan was right!" and "Ayatollah Merola!," it was estimated as the largest police demonstration in city history.
Led by the police union, the entire 250-member Emergency Services unit, which handles disruptions involving the mentally disturbed, has requested transfers in order to protest the indictment. Sullivan was a member of the elite unit.
Emotions are equally high in the black community, which has strongly objected to alleged police brutality in recent years. Hundreds of blacks turned out at angry protest marches this fall. Bumpurs' children have filed a $10 million damage suit against the city.
"It was cold-blooded murder," Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.) said at Bumpurs' funeral, which hundreds attended. "There can be no excuses when you kill a grandmother."
The indictment -- as well as a New York Times series focusing in part on alleged mishandling of Bumpurs' autopsy report by the city medical examiner -- comes in the wake of the controversy here over the case of Bernhard Hugo Goetz, the white electronics engineer who has admitted shooting four black youths in December when they accosted him on the subway. Goetz was indicted on three gun charges, but black leaders have charged that he is getting off too easily.
Now, police and politicians are comparing the two cases.
"What a paradox," said Philip Caruso, head of the police union. "Goetz is virtually exonerated, and an officer is indicted for doing his duty." Koch, for his part, told the Daily News, "My opinion is that the grand jury did the right thing . . . in the Goetz case. I happen not to agree with them in the Sullivan case."
Koch has said Bumpurs died "not, it appears, because of brutality but because of something much more complex -- a chain of mistakes and circumstances that came together in the worst possible way with the worst possible consequences."
Eviction proceedings were begun by the city housing authority less than a month after she failed to pay her $96.85-a-month rent in the Sedgwick project in the Bronx. When she died, she owed the city four months' rent.
Although the housing authority notified the city's Human Resources Agency, welfare caseworkers there incorrectly thought that regulations prohibited an emergency rental grant unless they obtained Bumpurs' permission in a face-to-face meeting.
But Bumpurs, who had a history of hospitalization for psychotic behavior, refused to open the door when her caseworker visited. Social workers were unable to reach her two daughters.
Four days before the fatal eviction attempt, a city psychiatrist obtained an interview in the apartment and found her "psychotic," "delusional" and "hallucinating." The psychiatrist said Bumpurs held a kitchen knife "defensively," making no aggressive gesture.
After the killing, two welfare supervisors were demoted and the psychiatrist was fired. George Gross, head of the Human Resources Administration, acknowledged that social workers should have provided Bumpurs an emergency rental grant and hospitalized her.
The psychiatrist asserted, however, that state law forbade him from committing Bumpurs to a mental institution against her will since she was not, in his judgment, a danger to herself or others.
Six Emergency Service police officers were called to the eviction because Bumpurs had a knife. It is not clear who mistakenly told them she was boiling lye to throw at them.
However, the false report prompted them to burst into the apartment when they saw through a hole in the door that the 260-pound woman was sitting quietly, knife in hand, away from the kitchen. They tried to pin her against the wall. She slipped away and lunged at one of the officers, bending the tip of her knife on his shield.
Sullivan fired two blasts from the shotgun, the first blowing her hand away and the second hitting her in the chest.
Police Chief Benjamin Ward, a black appointed by Koch after an earlier uproar over police brutality, was asked how he would have restrained her. He replied, "Mrs. Bumpurs looked like my mother. It is obvious that Mrs. Bumpurs and I have more in common than just being homo sapiens on the planet Earth. We have some other things in common, including my skin color, and probably some other types of heritage.
"For me to take that woman down with but one knife, as opposed to taking seven steps back, I suspect I would have stepped outside the apartment and resecured the door."