NEW YORK — It was hot in the basement of the 70th precinct in Brooklyn, the heat generated by 75 people crammed into the meeting room of the 1909-vintage station house. But after two hours of talking about police procedures and personnel changes, at least some of the people here - neighborhood residents, community activists, and politicians - felt it was worth the sweat: The healing process in the emotionally stretched neighborhood had begun.
The meeting is one of the first signs that Brooklyn - indeed, the entire city of New York - is trying to redress one of the worst allegations of police brutality in US history. The case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who has charged that police officers beat him and sexually assaulted him in a 70th precinct bathroom, shocked not only the nation, but the world.
Since the Aug. 9 incident, city officials, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have walked a fine line between sticking up for the police and taking action to correct latent problems with police behavior.
On Tuesday, Mayor Giuliani was defending the police in front of a German television crew. But he also recently appointed a 28-member task force to improve police-public relations. He has ordered all 38,000 police officers to meet with the group, which includes some harsh critics of the force.
The task force met three times this week in an effort to jump-start the healing process. The task force, says Giuliani, is trying to resolve a problem that has eluded the city in the past. "We're not going to get there tomorrow or the next day; we'll get there six months from now or a year from now," he says. "But there is a real opportunity here, and we are sincerely and honestly trying to take advantage of it."
The mayor's actions are a reversal from his position last June, when Amnesty International reported on excessive police force in the city. At that time, Giuliani termed the report "hype." Now, police commissioner Howard Safir says he'll look at the report.
New York's problem is not unique. "We have calls all the time - and not just from large urban areas," says Mary Powers of Chicago-based Citizen Alert, which monitors police accountability.
When confronted with evidence that police are abusing their authority, it's important to "take decisive steps to remedy the problem," says Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell. When his city's 39th precinct was hit by a recent corruption scandal, Mayor Rendell agreed to improve record keeping and training. "It's important to carry out recommendations," he says.
But that may put Giuliani, who is up for reelection this year, in a bind. If his task force recommends starting a civilian complaint review board, the mayor would be in the difficult position of backing down from his opposition to such boards or defying the task force. Giuliani has long maintained that the police are maligned and that unfair accusations against them are far more prevalent than are actual instances of brutality.
Complaints against police come at a time when mayors are crowing about dropping crime rates in their cities. Nationally, crime dropped 3 percent from 1995 to 1996, the FBI reports. In New York, crime fell even more - nearly 14 percent.
Within New York's minority community, however, concern persists that the drop in crime has come at the expense of civil liberties. On Tuesday, a group of mostly minority City Council members, state legislators, and a congressman called on the US Justice Department to mount an investigation.
"We should not let the trail get cold," says Rep. Major Owens (D) of New York.
US officials may yet decide to convene a grand jury to look into civil rights violations. Brooklyn's district attorney has indicted four police officers from the 70th precinct in connection with the Louima assault.