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Jewish World Review April 17, 2000 /12 Nissan, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Crime's down, but arrests keep rising -- IN A MARCH 29 EDITORIAL, the Washington Times argued that Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, has been treated unjustly by the New York press and his opponents because they ignore his record of reducing crime rates in the city. This is also the argument that the mayor, his police commissioner and the mayor's supporters have been making.

As a longtime New Yorker, I can attest that the streets are markedly safer, although there are some neighborhoods I would not go to after midnight. But as a reporter covering city politics and the city police for over 40 years, I can explain to out-of-towners why many New Yorkers who have broken no laws fear the police.

I have reported on a middle-aged white woman, who has trouble walking. As she was going home from work, she did not move fast enough for police clearing a street. A cop on horseback knocked her to the ground, and she is still suffering from the resulting injuries. A white neighbor of mine in Greenwich village was assaulted by a cop on my street because he asked for a badge number.

In 1999, it was disclosed that in the previous fiscal year, when Giuliani was in his sixth year as mayor, New York City paid $28.3 million settling police brutality suits -- a figure three times greater than that paid 10 years ago.

Not all the successful complainants were black or Hispanic. Clearly, however, most of the apprehension concerning the police exists and keeps mounting in what are called minority neighborhoods (although the people who live there are in the majority).

Reporting on one neighborhood in Brooklyn, David Barstow noted in the April 1 issue of The New York Times: "Almost every black or Hispanic teen-ager on the street has a story of being stopped and frisked, often several times a month, sometimes in the lobbies of their own apartment buildings." Said a teen-ager in another neighborhood, "We always fit the description."

The New York Daily News, hardly a liberal newspaper, polled 100 young black and Hispanic men. Eighty-one had been stopped and frisked at least once. As pressure from City Hall increases for more arrests, the police have complied. Of the 345,000 arrests in the city during 1998, more than 18,000 were not even brought before a judge by prosecutors because of insufficient evidence.

Analyzing those figures, The New York Times reported that, accordingly, "citywide, 50 people a day are arrested, fingerprinted and jailed, then released after prosecutors have rejected the charges against them -- often after those arrested have spent hours or overnight in packed holding cells." Many are strip-searched. Increasingly, blacks and Hispanics are being arrested for trespassing while trying to visit friends or relatives in public housing projects. Some of them actually live in those projects, but the police are in a hurry to cuff them, rather than check their truthfulness.

In the April 3 Newsday, Sheryl McCarthy reported:

"During a recent arraignment of a man charged with trespassing in his grandmother's building, Brooklyn Judge Joseph McKay sounded exasperated: `G-d help somebody if they are visiting a grandmother or somebody and she is not at home.... You spend 24 hours in jail."

Over the years, I have known and come to respect a number of police officers; and as a reporter, I have spent time on the streets with homicide detectives. I don't know of a more dangerous daily job than being a cop. And I hear from officers -- who ask not to have their names printed -- about the ceaseless pressure from the police commissioner to increase arrests.

A white detective in Brooklyn who has been on the force for nearly 20 years, told the New York Daily News (April 6): "People are tired of being harassed, searched and frisked, and run off the streets. The cops are too." Other police officers interviewed for that story agreed with him.

With a mayor who keeps insisting that police must always "be given the benefit of the doubt" when complaints are made -- and a police commissioner who keeps citing statistics that New York police are among the most restrained in the country -- cops who cannot restrain themselves figure they can get away with it. They don't always, but many escape accountability.

The Washington Times editorial speaks of the "urgent battle of perception vs. reality" concerning the actions of New York's police.

Hillary Gaston, a former Baltimore cop and federal agent, is now the pastor of a church in the Bronx. He is black. He says (New York Daily News, March 19) of many of his law-abiding parishioners' experiences with the police -- after the police commissioner told him there was a mistaken "perception" of police misconduct -- "It's not a perception to us. It's reality."

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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03/27/00: The censoring of feminist history
03/20/00: Should there be a chaplain in Congress?
03/13/00: Big labor, big China, spinning Gore
03/03/00: The ACLU violates its principles --- yet again!
02/28/00: Still two nations?
02/11/00: You bet we should disbar Bubba
01/31/00: Where was Jesse?
01/24/00: Is suing church for sexual harassment an entanglement?
01/18/00: Will Miranda make it?
01/11/00: ACLU: Guilty until presumed innocent?
01/03/00: Liberty lion should be Man of Century
12/28/99: Drug tests that tear families apart
12/20/99: Get ready for decisive ruling on school vouchers for religious schools
12/13/99: Guess who is taking the lead in anti-slavery movement? Hint: It ain't Rev. Jesse
12/06/99: When we refuse to buy the 'otherly-challenged' excuse
11/29/99: Expelling 'Huck Finn'
11/22/99: Pleading the First
11/16/99: Goal of diversity needs rethinking?
11/08/99: Prosecution in darkness
11/02/99: The accuracy that's owed to readers
10/26/99: Disappeared Americans
10/18/99: The blue wall of silence
10/11/99: Bill Bradley's speech tax
10/04/99: 'Technicalities' that keep us free
09/27/99: Our 'Americanism'-ignorant generation
09/20/99: ACLU better clean up its act
09/13/99: A professor of infanticide at Princeton
09/07/99: The Big Apple's Rotten Policing
08/23/99: Lawyerly ethics
08/16/99: To Get a Supreme Court Seat
08/02/99: What are the poor people doing tonight?
07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA