Police shootings and New York: lessons learned

To deal with a groom's death, Mayor Bloomberg is reaching out to community leaders.

Call it a tale of two shootings. In each, an unarmed black man is killed in New York in a hail of bullets fired by police, fearing, rightly or wrongly, for their lives.

But the different responses of city leaders to last weekend's shooting of Sean Bell in Queens and the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx tell a tale of a city's evolution and its ability to learn the importance of acknowledging a community's outrage and responding to it. Such a changed response is evident not just in New York, but in other cities across the country.

Almost as soon as Mayor Michael Bloomberg heard Saturday that police fired 50 times on three possibly unarmed black men, he began reaching out to political, religious, and community leaders, assuring them a full, fair investigation would take place. By Monday morning, the mayor, police commissioner, and dozens of black leaders – many still angry – came together at City Hall.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1999 death of Mr. Diallo, a West African immigrant shot in the entry to his apartment building, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defiantly defended the police. He didn't meet with local black leaders until weeks later. Thousands of protesters poured into the streets, prompting more than 1,700 arrests.

"You learn from your errors," says Douglas Muzzio, a political analyst at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York. "The reaction reflects in part the mayor's personality and the police commissioner's professional personality, but they learned from what Giuliani did, and they're not going to make the same mistakes."

New York's reaction is emblematic of changes in community/police relations across the country. From Cincinnati to Atlanta to Los Angeles, police departments have realized they need the cooperation and support of minority communities – those that usually felt the brunt of the "get tough" crime initiatives of the 1990s. In each city, fumbled political reactions to a charge of police misconduct – whether it was the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles or the 2001 shooting of a young black man in Cincinnati – have taught lessons about the importance of reaching out, urging calm, and dealing with nothing but the facts.

"There's now a more proactive, customer-service-oriented attitude and response in the aftermath of these incidents because police departments all over the country now understand their aggressive enforcement actions are typically felt disproportionately in the minority communities, and that further strains police/community relations," says Jack Riley, acting director of the Center on Quality Policing at the RAND Corp. in Pittsburgh. "With crime rates heading back up, the last thing you want to do is alienate a constituency you need to help keep crime level."

In New York, at a press conference with community leaders this week, Mayor Bloomberg remarked several times that no one was more "disturbed" than he and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly by last Saturday's shooting. Mr. Bell and two friends were leaving a strip joint after a bachelor party when an undercover officer, who was part of a larger operation at the club, thought he heard one of Bell's group say, "Yo, go get my gun." When the officer approached the car, an altercation erupted and police started firing. It's unclear whether the officer identified himself as a policeman or what prompted the gunfire that killed Bell and wounded two others, one critically.

"To me, it is unacceptable and inexplicable how you have 50-odd shots fired, but that's for the investigation to find out what happened," says Bloomberg. "We will tell everyone everything we know when we know, and we will not speculate."

Bloomberg also said he did not believe the shooting was racially motivated. Two of the shooting victims were black, and one was Hispanic. Two of the officers involved were black, two were white, and one was Hispanic. All five have been suspended.

"This is a much better response than the Giuliani administration [to the Diallo shooting], much more open and much more direct," says City Councilman Leroy Comrie of Queens. "A lot of people in this city are uncomfortable with the police department and its tone on the streets, but so far I'm satisfied [that] the mayor and the police commissioner have done their utmost to provide as much detail as possible."

Most political analysts are applauding the city's response so far, but some say it's unfair to compare the way Mr. Giuliani and Bloomberg handled the two shootings. Giuliani, who defeated the city's first African-American mayor, had strained relations with the minority community from the start. In reforming the city's finances, he also took on its various interest groups, including those in the black community, according to political analyst Fred Siegel, author of "The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life." Finally, the Diallo incident occurred at a time when the mayor's personal and marital problems had become regular public fodder.

"The Diallo affair comes at the beginning of Giuliani's personal meltdown," says Mr. Siegel. "This isn't a criticism of Bloomberg. I just don't think it's a fair comparison."

Other analysts say the city is also different as a result of 9/11 and the work Bloomberg has done in repairing relations with the black and Hispanic communities. He's worked to keep lines of communication open on a regular basis.

"You can't just have people talking to each other at a time of crisis. There has to be a foundation for communication. Otherwise, you're just managing the consequences of the crisis," says Mr. Riley of RAND.

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