The Mayor Is Responsible

July 25, 1993

There is no comfort for the mayors of America in the report on the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn, N.Y., in August 1991.

It absolved New York Mayor David N. Dinkins of the charge of deliberately withholding police control in the first two days of that riot. This is the accusation leveled by Hasidic Jewish leaders in Crown Heights that caused Gov. Mario M. Cuomo to order the report. Yet the report also found Mayor Dinkins gravely deficient during the second and third days of the riot -- and that is the main thing noticed in New York, where there is an election.

What Mayor Dinkins did wrong, according to the report, was to accept his police commissioner's word that everything was under control, to leave tactical and technical matters to the police. He did that for two days, before putting matters right. Mr. Dinkins' community work afterward, which both Jews and blacks criticized for favoring the other group, drew high marks.

The report holds Mayor Dinkins to a high standard against which most mayors, blissful not to have had a Crown Heights riot, would wish not to be held. It is a standard set by the federal commission headed by Otto Kerner that reported on the nation's urban riots in 1968. That told mayors to ask probing questions of police and become fully involved in operations. Without the Kerner Commission standard, Mayor Dinkins did nothing wrong on Aug. 20 and 21, 1991.

The riot began after a Hasidic Jew's car ran out of control killing a black boy, Gavin Cato, on Aug. 19, 1991. Black youths fatally stabbed an Australian Hasidic Jew, Yankel Rosenbaum, that night. Mayor Dinkins took charge of police riot tactics late on Aug. 21. The riot was over the next day. The report faults the police commissioner, other ranking police and the Brooklyn district attorney for the prosecution of only one suspect in the Rosenbaum murder, who was acquitted. It praised the work of a deputy police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, who happens to be New York's top cop today.

This report has rekindled rather than dampened the communal recriminations that gripped New York City in 1991. It is not politically motivated, making life worse for Governor Cuomo, who needs Mayor Dinkins' supporters when facing his own re-election next year. Meanwhile, with the mayor four months from electoral showdown with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican he only narrowly defeated in 1989, this report is a bombshell helping Mr. Giuliani.

The moral to the mayors of America is: (1) Don't have a riot in your city. (2) If (1) is disregarded, get on the street immediately to put the fire out before it spreads.

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