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30th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 30, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

By immediately involving the district attorney in Queens County, on one level, Mayor Bloomberg effectively handled the shooting incident there this past weekend. The reaction from the community, while angry, has been restrained. We haven’t, at least yet, seen the kind of sustained demonstrations we saw after the death of Amadou Diallo in 1999, nor the angry confrontations of the late 1980s that helped drive Mayor Koch from office.

On another level, however, the mayor and the city may pay a price. Mr. Bloomberg seems to have tilted too far in his criticism of the police, and has accepted the presumption that this is a crime by promoting the involvement of the Queens D.A. New York City police officers, who must make split-second decisions of life and death, may have a right to feel skittish. They are responsible for reducing crime to levels so low that Gotham is now considered one of the nation’s safest cities, only to see the mayor undermine their presumption of innocence when the chips are down. But despite this, the race baiters are regrouping and are seeking not just a special prosecutor, but also a federal investigation.

What exactly would be investigated? It is easy to see the tragedy. The bridegroom killed on his wedding day. It is easy to see how technical rules of police procedure may have been violated. Or, perhaps, faulty judgment led to the fatal shots. Or, most probably, a combination of events, mistakes, and just bad luck brought us to this point. But that would seem to demand departmental action rather than a criminal probe. The presumption of innocence on the part of the police is the least they deserve from any mayor.

It is easy for Mr. Bloomberg to now charge “excessive force.” He has the advantage of hindsight, knowing many things that the officers didn’t. He did not have to make a split-second decision, since no vehicle struck him or any of his colleagues. But also among the things that the mayor knows, but the officers didn’t, is that the three men involved, including Sean Bell, who died of his wounds, all had arrest records, which include gun-related charges.

The one lesson learned from the Diallo affair that has certainly helped the mayor keep the lid on the activist response was that the five police officers involved in this incident are a diverse lot. This is presumably by design, not accident. The four Diallo officers were all white, which gave credence on the street to activist charges that the incident had racial overtones. If it is accepted that race was not the reason that these young men were shot, then what is the crime?

No angry racial mob chased the victims into oncoming traffic. No race talk. If there is any real evidence that the cops were under the influence of alcohol, as has been suggested, I have yet to see it. If all this is true, then it is hard to see why a prosecutor is looking into this incident at all. I suspect that many police officers, of all races, feel the same way.

That is another lesson from the Diallo case. At the end of the day, the four police officers involved, all white, were acquitted, although they had to travel to Albany to get justice. In a moment that nearly ended Fernando Ferrer’s mayoral bid, the former Bronx president acknowledged that the officers were “over-indicted.” Mr. Bloomberg should note that if Mr. Ferrer, who based his campaigns in large part on race matters, can recover from his brush with truth, the Republican mayor has little to fear and much to gain by exercising leadership and telling people things they may not want to hear.

Police guidelines on the use of a weapon may try to eliminate error, but can never completely succeed. Most police officers go through their entire careers rarely, and in most cases never, having to fire their weapons in the line of duty. These men seem to conform to that rule, despite being responsible for hundreds of arrests. Regardless of how this case comes out, my suspicion is that the active policing careers of most of these men has ended.

We are offered heart rending stories of the cancelled wedding, the sobbing bride, and the two now fatherless children. The utterances of the Reverend Sharpton are reported in detail. The mitigating circumstances, such as the arrest records of Mr. Bell and his friends, and the admirable records of the police officers involved seem to get short shrift. It would be nice to see a gesture from the mayor such as his visiting with members of the police force — perhaps the Academy — to let them know that he and all New Yorkers know and value what risks they have taken and what they have done for the city in the years of declining crime.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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