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17th March
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, March 17, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Fernando Ferrer is a very cautious politician, one who usually measures his words very carefully. This is usually the mark of a good politician. Mr. Ferrer has the ability to be asked a tough question and respond with an answer that brings a line of questioning to a conclusion, but leaves the original query unanswered.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ferrer was asked by a member of the city’s police Sergeants Benevolent Association whether he thought the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo was a crime or a tragic accident. Mr. Ferrer candidly (and correctly) responded,“I don’t believe it was a crime. Do I believe there was an attempt by many to overindict? Sure.”

For Mr. Ferrer, this represents what seems to be a 180-degree switch from his previous position on the tragic incident. It is certainly a radical switch from his perceived position. Scanning hundreds of articles and interviews from the time of Mr. Diallo’s death, through the marches, the arrests, the indictments, the trial, the verdict, and Mr. Ferrer’s 2001 mayoral campaign, I found that the former Bronx president’s words on the Diallo slaying were usually measured and moderate. He simply went along with the radicalism and pandering of others.
During this period, Mr. Ferrer repeatedly attacked the Giuliani administration’s policing policies in a general way, never exactly demanding indictments, but never asserting that they were inappropriate.
Diallo was the West African street peddler who was shot dead by four police officers in a hail of 41 bullets in the doorway of his Soundview apartment building.

There was considerable evidence that the cops thought that Diallo had a gun and only opened fire when they believed that they were in a life-threatening situation.There was no evidence of a deliberate attempt to kill an unarmed man.
But the figure 41 stuck in the public consciousness as wildly excessive, even immortalized in song by Bruce Springsteen. The incident enabled the Reverend Al Sharpton to reach a new pinnacle of power and influence as he organized daily protests and ar
rests at One Police Plaza. Hundreds of prominent New Yorkers submitted to arrest in an orchestrated daily melodrama.
But in protesting the Diallo slaying and Giuliani policing practices, what were the protesters, Mr. Ferrer very prominently among them, really asking for?
The undercurrent at the protests was that someone needed to pay for Diallo’s death. That was certainly a big part of Mr. Sharpton’s agenda, and this was his show.Within weeks, he got what he wanted. The four cops were indicted for second-degree murder by the Bronx district attorney, Robert Johnson. It was the most extreme charge possible.

Was Mr. Johnson, the first black district attorney in state history, influenced by the daily show at One Police Plaza? I believe he was, and yes, he did overindict.
A number of columnists said so at the time, and events have proven us right.
After Mr. Johnson lost the case, he was cornered by Mr. Sharpton at the Bronx County Democratic Party’s annual dinner and berated for botching the case, ending with Mr. Sharpton calling the Bronx D.A. an “Uncle Tom.”
But if Mr. Ferrer recognized that Mr. Johnson, under intense pressure, overreached, why didn’t he say so when it mattered? If he had, he might well have been mayor today.
There is no long-term advantage to going along with the crowd, particularly a crowd led by a demagogue like Mr. Sharpton.
If a black or Latino leader of Mr. Ferrer’s stature had separated the issues of
the unease over Mr. Giuliani’s aggressive policing from the specifics of this case, he or she would have demonstrated true leadership — the ability to take the principled, correct stand in a tough situation.
In this instance, it might have resulted in a cooling of the very real tensions brought on by the case.
But Mr. Ferrer went along with Mr. Sharpton and the crowd when he should have preached the levelheaded moderation he expressed Tuesday.
The former Bronx president had many opportunities to distance himself from the angry crowd.
When the decision came down that pulled the case from Bronx County changing the venue to Albany, Mr. Ferrer protested the decision.

When the verdict came in, Mr. Ferrer could have stated that the facts were heard and justice was done.
Instead, he blamed the result (that he now implies was correct) on the change of venue.
Not content with letting the matter rest, he joined in the chorus looking to take the case into federal court.“There is a verdict. But we have no closure,” he said. “We must explore every legal avenue to see that justice is finally done in this case.”
If the four cops were “overindicted,” then justice was done.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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