THE appointment of 29-year New York police veteran Raymond Kelly as police commissioner is widely seen as providing Mayor David Dinkins with a helping hand at a crucial time.
Mr. Dinkins's much-touted skill as a conciliator is on the line because of a major rift between City Hall and its largely white police force. How successful New York's first black mayor is in cooling the tension may affect not only the degree of peace on the streets here, but his bid for reelection next year.
The dispute is now enmeshed in issues of race and mayoral politics. Former US Attorney Rudolph Giuliani - Dinkins's expected GOP challenger - has defended the police force. He says most officers think the mayor is putting their lives at risk. Both Dinkins and Mr. Giuliani have accused each other of appealing to racial bias for political advantage.
Police cite several moves by Dinkins as the cause of their frustration:
* When charges of corruption and illegal drug activity surfaced last spring, he named an independent panel to investigate. A police union filed suit to stop the probe.
* Last summer when unrest in Manhattan's Washington Heights followed the fatal shooting of a Dominican immigrant by a police officer, Dinkins proclaimed sympathy for the victim's family. Police say the implication was that they were in the wrong. Dinkins says he was only trying to maintain calm.
* Many police are unhappy with mayoral efforts to persuade more of them to live in the city. Most city police live in the suburbs. Dinkins wants all new recruits to live in the city and incentives such as tax credits to encourage earlier hires to follow suit.
* The most grating issue for many police has been the mayor's follow-through on his campaign pledge to revamp the existing civilian complaint review board which probes citizen charges of police misconduct. Half the members are police department employees. The mayor wants an all-civilian board. Some analysts say the board composition is largely symbolic, since disputes often come down to the word of one witness and one policeman and can rarely be definitively resolved.
The controversial review board move, however, touched off a rowdy protest at City Hall last month involving more than one-third of the police force. Some off-duty officers damaged cars, held up traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge, and directed racial slurs at the mayor. Giuliani spoke at the rally.
Dinkins, who insists he has been unfairly targeted for police anger, has held several conciliatory meetings with city clergy and top police officials. He now favors mediation as an interim step in review-board disputes, a move favored by most police.
"I think the mayor is really trying to resolve this situation amicably, which is very much his style," says Dr. Joseph Viteritti, a New York University professor of public administration who headed a New York mayoral advisory committee on police management practices in the mid-1980s.
Kelly could do a great deal to help the mayor in his mediation efforts and improve sagging police morale. Acting chief since commissioner Lee Brown stepped down for personal reasons, Mr. Kelly, who is white, again brings to the job top education credentials and a good working relationship with both the mayor and the police unions. He has promised to continue the city's move to community policing, launched by Mr. Brown, with its emphasis on neighborhood foot patrols and stepped-up crime prevention.
"The success of community policing is not guaranteed - I think it will take a Herculean effort," comments Thomas Reppetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission. In his view a good police commissioner sets the tone for the entire department and can play a far more important role in curbing police misconduct by day-to-day leadership and discipline than any "after the fact" civilian review board.
Mr. Viteritti, who says he favors an insider for the job, terms Kelly a logical choice and a potentially strong commissioner.