Last year, when the cops who were part of a street narcotics unit shot and killed unarmed teenager Ramarley Graham in the Bronx after kicking in the door to his grandmother’s apartment, it was a clear-cut case of police failure. But it never became a citywide story, let alone a national cause.
By contrast, the recent shooting of 16-year-old Kimani Gray in East Flatbush led to days of scattered street violence, an Occupy influx, extended posturing on MSNBC and widespread press coverage.
The difference this time? An election, and post-Bloomberg anxiety.
For more than two decades, Gotham’s mayoral politics have been framed by racial conflicts as expressed over policing methods.
In 1989, with an election approaching, the racially motivated killing of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst triggered a surge in support for challenger David Dinkins. The candidate, who had been trailing, went on to defeat three-term incumbent Ed Koch in the mayoral primary.
Mr. Hawkins’s murder has cast a long shadow over New York politics ever since.
When Rudy Giuliani, running as the law and order candidate and enjoying strong police backing, defeated David Dinkins in 1993, the outgoing mayor’s supporters threatened the city with ongoing disorder. This seemed no idle threat at the time, given the deadly Crown Heights riots of 1991.
In a city suffering from 2,000 murders a year, Mr. Giuliani refused to cave in to Al Sharpton’s “riot ideology,” the threat that if Al and his pal Charlie Rangel weren’t propitiated, the city might see a repeat of the violence that erupted during 1995’s 125th Street massacre, when protests over the eviction of a beloved black record shop boiled over into a murderous rampage. Though not charged with a crime, Mr. Sharpton was implicated for whipping up the hate.
Mr. Giuliani cut off Messrs. Sharpton and Rangel, but then he had to pay the price politically when the reverend and the congressman exploited tragedies such as the 1999 Amadou Diallo case, in which the aggressive and usually effective NYPD Street Crimes Unit mowed down an unarmed African immigrant in a hail of gunfire.
But for all the tumult, when Ruth Messinger ran against Mr. Giuliani in 1997 and tried to make race and policing an issue, the tactic fell flat in a city enjoying an unprecedented reduction in crime. Mr. Giuliani and his first police commissioner Bill Bratton had, with great success, replaced the passive policing of the Koch and Dinkins years with the activist and innovative “broken windows” approach.
Mr. Bloomberg split the difference. His police commissioner, Ray Kelly, continued broken windows policing and intensified the use of stop and frisk to further drive down the crime rate. He also defused the threat of riots by making nice with Al Sharpton. Mr. Bloomberg used cutouts such as the Carnegie Corporation to pay off Mr. Sharpton and other ministers, thus buying the relative peace of this past decade. But none of the mayoral candidates other than Republican long-shot John Catsimatidis have even a fraction of Mr. Bloomberg’s money. The upshot is that the city is entering a period of uncertainty when it comes to racial politics.
With the exception of the most radical of the mayoral candidates, Comptroller John Liu, whose one-time policy director honeymooned in North Korea, candidates have tried to take moderate positions on the Kimani Gray incident.
The Kimani Gray case, however, may turn out to be a damp squib. The facts suggest that, unlike Mr. Hawkins, Gray makes an unmarketable martyr. The story that has emerged, largely uncontested, suggests that Gray, a young wannabe gangster with ambitions to become a Blood, was approached by two police officers—neither of whom was white—who thought he was holding a gun. Police say he was, and he pulled it despite police orders to “freeze” and then was shot seven times, both in his front and his back, suggesting he was facing the police when they began shooting and was turned around by the force of the shots.
Jumaane Williams, the councilman representing the heavily Caribbean area of single-family homes and apartment buildings where the shooting took place, was already prominent as a critic of the city’s “stop, question and frisk” policing policies, and he has emerged as the chief community spokesman in the case. Mr. Williams has both revved up the rhetoric and tamped down the sometimes violent protests that followed the killing.
Sounding at times like the Al Sharpton of the Giuliani years, Mr. Williams has warned that because Police Commissioner Kelly—with whom he has frequently clashed—ignores the “root causes of the problems in East Flatbush, I fear this will be a long and bloody summer ahead.”
All of the major candidates have called for modification to stop and frisk, but like Mr. Williams, they’re short on specifics. Their problem is that stop and frisk is unpopular with half the city’s population, but is also enormously effective. In the wake last December of the horrific Newtown killings in nearby Connecticut, there was an enormous hue and cry for better gun control, and the call often came from the very pols most opposed to stop and frisk.
Yet stop and frisk—far and away the most effective means of getting guns off the streets—has served to reduce not only crime but the state prison population well. The problem is that it’s also an affront to the dignity of ordinary people going about their business in high-crime areas.
The difficult task of reconciling the legitimate demand for respect and the need for the police to protect the population at large will, at least for a time, be in the hands of the left-wing activist United States District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin. She will no doubt rule on behalf of her allies in the ACLU, who have been fighting the most successful criminal justice reforms in the history of the country for the past 22 years.
But her verdict will certainly be appealed, and that leads back to the role of Mr. Williams. He’s been a bitter critic of Mr. Kelly, but he’s neither acknowledged the disproportionate benefit to minority communities from the city’s approach to policing nor laid out a means by which public safety can be better reconciled with the right of ordinary citizens not to be harassed by the police.
In a recent speech, former Commissioner Bill Bratton compared the use of stop and frisk to chemotherapy. He noted that too high a dose can kill a patient, but the proper amount can save lives. The courts, wrapped up as they necessarily are in abstraction, are unlikely to be able to strike that balance. It will be the task of Mr. Bloomberg’s successors to work out the new framework.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the leading mayoral candidate at the moment, says she would like to retain Ray Kelly as police commissioner but also impose a monitor to oversee stop and frisk. Rival Bill de Blasio wants to replace Mr. Kelly, possibly with Bill Bratton.
The Kimani Gray case may fade, but the intertwined issues of crime and race will remain high on the electoral agenda. If the politicians fail to thread the needle, the danger ahead is that New York could regress to a Chicago-like situation, where the well-to-do areas are reasonably well-policed while the minority areas are left to fend for themselves regarding crime. The liberal champions of equality will have once again produced greater inequality.