Less tolerance for NYPD's zero tolerance

While Baltimore looks to the NYPD as a model, New Yorkers say their police are out of control.

April 02, 2000|By Dave Saltonstall

NEW YORK -- In the aftermath of Patrick Dorismond's death, a stunning three out of four New Yorkers believe that the use of deadly force by the city's Police Department has gotten out of hand, and most would support federal monitoring of the department, a News/NY1 poll shows.

The survey, taken after the police shooting of the unarmed security guard March 16, offers a stinging rebuke to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has made crimefighting a cornerstone of his administration.

It also reflects deep misgivings about Police Commissioner Howard Safir -- with nearly half the poll sample, 47 percent, saying he should be replaced, compared with 33 percent who would keep him on.

A year ago, at the height of protests over the February 1999 police shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, only one-third thought Safir should resign.

Perhaps most shocking, New Yorkers say by a greater than 2-to-1 majority that the federal government should be granted oversight of the city's storied Police Department. U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch is weighing whether to recommend such oversight, a move that 61 percent of New Yorkers say they would support, compared with just 26 percent who would not.

"Wow," said Republican consultant Nelson Warfield. "If New Yorkers want Janet Reno to oversee Giuliani's Police Department, then his crime-fighting image is going to be tarnished. And that cuts right to the heart of Rudy's performance."

Giuliani responded to the poll, which was released last week, with a curt statement issued by his press secretary, Sunny Mindel.

"Given the amount of coverage this recent incident has received, this is not surprising," the statement read. "The mayor believes in what he is doing, and he always does what he believes. He does not govern by polls."

The furor over recent police shootings has deflated the mayor's approval rating to 45 percent -- down from 54 percent in September and just marginally above his all-time low of 40 percent one year ago in the wake of the Diallo shooting.

The random telephone poll of 504 New Yorkers in all five boroughs was conducted March 22 by Blum & Weprin Associates, a professional polling firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

The dissatisfaction with the NYPD's performance comes after three fatal police shootings of unarmed men in the last 13 months. In addition to Diallo and Dorismond, the police shot to death unarmed parolee Malcolm Ferguson on March 1.

In light of those deaths, 72 percent of New Yorkers across all racial and economic boundaries agree that the NYPD's use of deadly force has gotten out of hand, compared with just 18 percent who disagree.

Official response

In response, police officials on March 24 released a raft of statistics noting that crime in the city is down 55 percent during the last six years, including an 8.4 percent drop this year. They also pointed out that there were 41 police-related fatalities in 1991 under Mayor David Dinkins, compared with 11 last year.

"It is unfair to conduct a survey of this type days after a highly publicized police shooting," added the statement from Deputy Chief Thomas Fahey.

Safir, who was said to be vacationing in California, could not be reached for comment.

Despite the clear achievements of the department, the image of an agency run amok is shared by a majority of whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans, Catholics and Jews. Even a majority of people on Staten Island -- a Republican stronghold and home to thousands of city cops -- agree that the agency's use of force is out of control.

Among those who believe Safir should be replaced is former Mayor Ed Koch. "In the past, I've defended Safir," Koch says in last week's New York magazine. "Now I think he has to go."

Giuliani's handling of the Dorismond case -- and particularly his decision to release the 26-year-old's past criminal record in defending the shooting -- is clearly driving some of the negative fallout. The Brooklyn father of two was killed after an undercover police officer asked him if he knew where to buy drugs, sparking a scuffle that ended in Dorismond's death.

Releasing records

More than two-thirds, or 67 percent, of residents said they thought that Giuliani's decision to release Dorismond's record -- which amounted to two minor disorderly conduct violations and one robbery and assault charge from his sealed juvenile record -- was unjustified.

The juvenile case was dismissed, and the records sealed; in the other two cases, Dorismond was allowed to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and perform community service.

"The releasing of that record left a bad taste in people's mouth," said New York Urban League head Dennis Walcott, one of Giuliani's few allies in the black community. "I think it is a pure gut reaction to the disparaging of an innocent man who simply said no to drugs."

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