Police feel like victims of crime fight

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 April, 1999, 12:00am

If New York's mean streets are safer than they have been in more than a generation, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is not alone in deserving the credit.

Since 1990, 23 police officers have been killed in the line of duty, 115,000 of them injured, and 3,000 of them have ended up at the wrong end of a gun.

The take-no-prisoners battle against the world's most famous urban problem was not won without victims. One of them was Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant who was killed in a hail of 41 police bullets for no other reason than he was in the wrong place at the wrong time - and almost certainly of the wrong race.

Another victim has been the New York Police Department, who officers now stand collectively accused of turning the city into a mini police state, all in the cause of making life safer for the white citizens who twice voted Mr Giuliani into his job.

Never a city where the races co-existed in harmony, New York underwent a period of relative calm during the law-and-order campaign of the mayor's first term.

But old racial wounds have been reopened by the Diallo shooting, and the city is gearing up for two trials which threaten to have the divisive force of the Rodney King beating case which sparked riots in Los Angeles.

On the day four young policemen were arraigned in the Bronx on second-degree murder charges connected to Diallo's death, jury selection was beginning in a Brooklyn court waiting to hear another case which tarnished the image of New York's finest.

The victim in that 1997 case, a Haitian immigrant called Abner Louima, lived to tell the tale. But the city is waiting to see what a jury will do with charges that he was beaten and sexually abused by white officers in a police station.

After Mr Giuliani took prompt remedial action in the Louima case, the public outrage soon subsided. But the anger has swelled since the February 4 Diallo shooting, becoming a racially charged tidal wave sweeping away public trust in the administration of the mayor and Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

'I've been through a lot of difficult things in my career, but these are the most difficult personally,' said Mr Safir.

The anti-Giuliani protests, which have seen 1,200 demonstrators arrested, have been tainted by accusations that they are being orchestrated by left-wing foes of the mayor, including the often incendiary black activist Al Sharpton.

'It's open season on police officers in New York right now,' said attorney Marvyn Kornberg, who is defending one of the policemen accused in the Louima assault case.

Since the Diallo shooting, the elite Street Crime Unit involved in the incident has reported a 67 per cent drop in arrests, while murders are rising for the first time in several years. Mr Safir said that the unit's ranks were now reluctant to arrest minority suspects for fear of inciting more controversy.