Like all big-city mayors, New York’s Michael Bloomberg stands at the center of powerful countervailing forces. Residents and visitors must feel safe if businesses are to thrive, and he must therefore rely on a large, proactive police department to keep the city’s criminal element in check. If the audiences had thought of Times Square as a war zone, if too many people had been jacked up on the A Train beneath Broadway, even Cats would have closed in a week.
But to grapple with the crime problem Bloomberg must confront — very delicately — some difficult political realities. As in other large cities, crime in New York follows predictable ethnic patterns, and as it happens the ethnicities disproportionately represented in the city’s criminal population wield similarly disproportionate political power. So, when the inevitable violent confrontation between cop and criminal occurs, as happened earlier this week in Queens, Bloomberg is forced to decide which of these competing interests is to be subjugated to the other. Clearly, he has made his choice.
Bloomberg spent Tuesday shuttling between the home of the dead man’s family and various venues in Queens, where he met with an assortment of “community leaders,” including, of course, Al Sharpton. Back at City Hall, Bloomberg offered his assessment of the shooting to reporters. “It’s hard to understand — and keep in mind I was not there at the time — why shots should be fired,” he said. “To me, that sounds excessive and unacceptable.”
With those remarks Bloomberg appointed himself as a Clinton-like comforter in chief, abandoning even a pretense of the objectivity he should have as the chief executive of New York City. In doing so, he may have unwittingly influenced events far into the future. When four NYPD officers mistakenly shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in 1999, their subsequent criminal trial had to be moved to Albany when the judge ruled that pretrial publicity in New York City may have unfairly influenced the jury pool. Hillary Clinton, for example, labeled the four officers as murderers before the trial had even begun. A jury acquitted the officers on all counts.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg sought to distance himself from those earlier remarks, saying he was speaking “only as a civilian.” But this is a bell that cannot be un-rung. Should the Queens shooting find its way into a criminal court — a political certainty if not necessarily a legal one — we can expect the mayor’s words to be quoted in the motion for a change of venue.
I offer no judgment on the shooting itself, which claimed the life of a 23-year-old man and left two of his friends wounded. The investigation is far from complete, and definitive pronouncements made elsewhere, either in support of the involved police officers or against them, are premature and irresponsible. But I can say that though firing at a moving car may be against NYPD policy, it is not necessarily against the law. I can also say that although none of the three men who were shot had a gun, it is not necessarily unreasonable that the officers believed at least one of them was armed.
There exists among cops and prosecutors a category of homicide known formally as “excusable” and informally as “awful but lawful.” This may turn out to be one such case. But whatever the eventual outcome, the immediate impact of the Queens shooting is as predicable as the tides. The four cops in particular and the NYPD in general will be the focus of a series of unflattering articles in New York’s major dailies, with others obediently and obsessively following the lead set by Times. The city’s television stations, as always taking their own cues from the Times, will tag along like puppies. The ensuing furor will cause other cops to stop and consider the possible consequences before taking any action that might propel them into the defendant’s chair at some future circus trial. And the city’s criminals, sensing this reluctance on the part of the cops, will be only too happy to take advantage and step up their predatory ways.
Hang on to your iPods, New Yorkers, your subway ride is about to get a little more dangerous.
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.