Can General Rudy Control His Cop Army?

Striding through the corridors of police headquarters and trolling the talk show circuit, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spent a long weekend defending those embattled civil servants whose work has made him a national political star: cops.

On Feb. 20, he stood alongside Police Commissioner Howard Safir and handed police a powerful new tool, announcing that cops will seize the cars of people arrested for drunk driving. The next morning, he told Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson on ABC-TV that some of his critics were trying to “racially exploit” the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in order to “divide people.” A day later, news leaked out that the Police Department would assign 600 new cops to controversial buy-and-bust operations, escalating the never-ending war on drugs.

These were familiar gestures from a man considered by many to be a cop’s Mayor, a no-nonsense politician who aggressively defends the cops through one crisis after another. But the same Mayor who ranted outside David Dinkins’ City Hall in 1993, stirring up a crowd of rowdy cops, has seen relations with police fall apart over the years, amid ugly salary disputes.

As Mr. Giuliani sets out on his quest for higher office, the people who have helped make him a rising star feel as shafted as ever. They say they are underpaid. Some think the Mayor’s quality-of-life campaign has reduced cops to the status of repo men, meter maids and municipal nags. Meanwhile, the cops watch resentfully as Mr. Giuliani barnstorms the country, boasting of accomplishments that have put them in the line of fire.

Now a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association election set for June is stirring up even more anti-Giuliani sentiment in the precincts. The crescendo of rank-and-file grumbling is strange background music at a time when the Diallo shooting has forced Mr. Giuliani to mount perhaps the most spirited defense of cops in his five-year tenure.

Diallo’s death in a hail of 41 police bullets on Feb. 4 has etched predictable battle lines across the city: Rudy Giuliani versus Al Sharpton; cop defenders versus cop detractors. But those faction fights have overshadowed another, equally explosive, divide: the long-brewing hostility between City Hall and rank-and-file police officers over pay and a host of other labor and policy issues. And that ongoing standoff, coupled with the searing racial tensions created by the Diallo shooting, has produced a critical moment for Mr. Giuliani and the Police Department at a time when both might otherwise be reveling in the city’s historic drop in crime.

Former Police Commissioner William Bratton, who was pushed out of his job three years ago by Mr. Giuliani, was happy to take the side of his former troops. “The cops certainly appreciate that he has offered them a lot of support and provided the political authority to take back the city,” he said. “But relations are strained. The cops feel that they haven’t been treated fairly, and they’re correct in that assumption.”

When Mr. Giuliani came to power in 1994 amid soaring murder rates, he offered the police a tacit political bargain. He would throw the muscle of City Hall behind cops, boosting their prestige and summoning the political will to allow the department to aggressively pursue its quarry. In return, the cops would deliver on the central tenet of the Mayor’s political vision, the insistence that safety and order are the pillars of a civil society.

It worked for Mr. Giuliani: Plummeting crime, above all else, is propelling his quest for higher office. But as Mr. Giuliani prepares to move on, many cops remain dissatisfied with their dividends.

For one thing, police representatives are seething over an internal Police Department directive, obtained by The Observer , that calls for many officers, sergeants and lieutenants to be rated in three bell-curve categories by their commanders according to their performance. Union officials have been fighting the directive, called “banding,” arguing it would force officers to compete against each other for spots in each band, including the lowest category, which must include one-fourth of the officers. According to union officials, the city is preparing to move forward with the plan.

A Police Department spokesman didn’t return a call requesting comment.

Other officials complain of relentless pressure from police headquarters-regarded by many as an annex of City Hall these days-to write summonses for petty quality-of-life offenses. That earns street cops scorn from civilians as they play the undignified role of ticket-writing machines, targeting petty offenses they would just as soon ignore.

“You have cops hiding in bushes looking for dogs off their leashes,” cracked one former police official. “Are you kidding me?”

Finally, according to street cops and current and former police officials, many officers still resent that their starting annual salaries of $27,800 are many thousands of dollars less than their suburban counterparts’. As Mr. Giuliani campaigned toward decisive re-election in 1997, the police were waging a tumultuous labor battle with him over a five-year contract-retroactive to 1995 and through 2000-that included a two-year wage freeze. (It was settled in September 1997 when an arbitrator upheld the city.) In one case, officers by the scores marched outside every station house in the city, chanting slogans like “Mayor Giuliani, we give you heroes, you give us zeros.”

“The men are still frustrated,” said Jim Higgins, the recording secretary for the P.B.A., which represents rank-and-file officers. “They’re demoralized. They’ve gone out and done the job. The Mayor hasn’t recognized them where it counts-in the paycheck.”

It’s Intense Out There

Mr. Giuliani has defended the salary of police officers, arguing that the raises offered cops in 1997 outpace those offered other city workers. And he has said cops are under no particular pressure to produce tickets. “They are under tremendous pressure from supervisors to keep the city safe, and many of them put that pressure on themselves,” the Mayor has said. “Police work is highly pressured work. It’s very intense.”

Mr. Higgins disputed that view. “We’re always under pressure to give more summonses out,” he said. “The department says there’s no pressure. But there is.”

City Hall’s hard-line approach has set off a raucous power struggle within the P.B.A. The outcome of an upcoming P.B.A. election could shape City Hall’s relationship with the cops for years to come. The current union leadership is facing a serious challenge from dissidents who charge that the union leadership has not fought the Mayor hard enough on pay and other issues.

Adding to the uncertainty and tension, Mr. Giuliani’s war on crime has fallen under harsh scrutiny in the aftermath of Diallo’s death. Under Mr. Bratton, the department launched an assault on crime and disorder which reflected a “zero tolerance” policing movement sweeping the country. Mr. Bratton contributed to the department’s swaggering image, holding court at Elaine’s and other hot spots like a Vietnam-era American general on leave in Saigon, as he vowed to “take back the city block by block.” Crime fell even faster under Mr. Safir, who implemented many of his predecessor’s successful no-tolerance policies.

But now, with crime at its lowest point in a generation, critics and boosters alike question whether Mr. Safir-or the Mayor, in his hands-on management of the Police Department-has a peacetime plan. So far, Mr. Safir’s initiatives-seizing the cars of drunk drivers, adding buy-and-bust operations-suggest a war footing. Many community and political leaders urge a return to “community policing,” in which officers are attached to, and grow familiar with, a neighborhood. And they want elite undercover squads to scale back the large-scale frisking that has helped give the department its paramilitary image.

“Now that crime is down, these strategies need to be adjusted-big time,” said one former high-ranking police official. “It’s not an occupying army anymore.”

Mr. Giuliani certainly has expressed new-found interest in the department’s manners. In a speech to 689 eager young officers on Feb. 18, the Mayor instructed his listeners to be nice to civilians. “[W]hen you deal with people, [say] ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ ‘Mr.,’ ‘Mrs.,’ ‘Ms.,'” the Mayor said, adding that the officers were, in some sense, “civil rights workers.”

Those sentiments aside, Mr. Giuliani has yet to prove he can convincingly play the role of peacetime general. He seems to see himself as an embattled warrior engaged in epic struggles with forbidding foes: political corruption, street crime, even lax thinking.

A former city official suggested a historical comparison, noting that Gen. George Patton was “driven to despair” by the prospect of peace as World War II came to an end. “This is sort of the same thing,” the former official said. “[Mr. Giuliani] is a wartime general. He thrives on conflict.”

So critics are less inclined to give his anti-crime policies the benefit of the doubt. For instance, Mr. Giuliani recently announced plans to hire 1,000 new cops, bringing the number of officers to an unprecedented 41,000. The Mayor has said he hopes to build on past crime-fighting successes. But others said that another troop buildup without a new crime-fighting strategy or a residency requirement only enhances the image of the Police Department as a force of outsiders.

“In my day, most of us were born in [the city],” said Joe Coffey, a retired detective who’s now a law enforcement consultant. “Now these kids come in from the suburbs. They never knew the mean streets. They only know from what they’ve seen on TV. Their attitude is very good for fighting crimes, but it’s very bad for community relations.”

In another development, The New York Times reported on Feb. 15 that the vaunted street crimes unit-four members of the elite squad were involved in the Diallo shooting-had nearly tripled its size under Mr. Safir, to 380 officers. The Times said that the expansion was carried out despite the objections of unit commanders who warned that training and oversight would suffer in the wake of the buildup.

While the elite units grow, the number of precinct-based cops apparently is shrinking. A City Council report of Feb. 23 noted that in the past year the number of uniformed personnel had dropped in scores of precincts all over the city. Precinct-based cops, in theory, are central to the “community policing” ideal some hold out as the best hope for good will between cops and locals.

“You get rid of the personal interaction … and all the good will is gone,” observed Mr. Coffey.

Mr. Giuliani harshly derided such notions in 1994, suggesting that community policing’s “social services aspects” had to be eliminated in order to get serious about fighting crime. And he has repeatedly argued that now is not the time to let up on crime.

But some observers are wondering if success has morphed into excess. As one quality-of-life crime after another is banished from the landscape, officers are under pressure to crack down on increasingly petty offenses, according to one retired cop who is constantly in touch with onetime colleagues.

Bust Those Spitters!

Mr. Giuliani has helped in that regard, launching one new crusade after another against taxi drivers, food vendors, gum spitters (he was joking) and jaywalkers (he wasn’t). And with the tacit (or, if union officials are to be believed, overt) pressure to produce summonses, cops sometimes find themselves playing an unpleasant, indeed reviled, role.

“You’re climbing on the backs of citizens,” the former cop said. “Cops don’t have the discretion to say, ‘Have a nice day,’ and let people go. Are we here to help people, or are we here to tax people at every possible opportunity?”

As he balefully surveyed the protesters ringing City Hall on Feb. 22, one cop conceded that it’s part of his job to give civilians tickets for niggling infractions. But it occasionally gets crazy, he said. Jaywalking? The officer scoffed. “I can’t really comment on that,” he said, venturing out into traffic on Broadway, “because I’m about to jaywalk right now.”

Yet Mr. Giuliani’s wartime approach to minor disorder suggests a broader policing dilemma produced by the “zero tolerance” approach. The Police Department has employed an in-your-face approach to crowd control, greeting public events-demonstrations, sports events, concerts-with a show of force that would have been unheard of in previous administrations. Visitors to Yankee playoff games last year were astonished to witness hundreds of officers in riot gear flood the field the second after the final pitch was thrown. (The show of force had been standard procedure for decisive games, but under Mr. Giuliani, the riot police have been deployed for every playoff game.) Meanwhile, the shabbiest of street protesters have been barricaded into spaces the size of chicken coops. And sharpshooters stood atop City Hall during a demonstration of AIDS activists on Dec. 1.

Whatever the rationale for this startling approach to crowd control, the constant show of force has a downside-for cops, as well as civilians. Their constant presence risks making even the law-abiding feel bullied, which in turn can make situations like Diallo’s death all the more explosive.

“People feel as if the numbers are overwhelming-maybe they feel overly controlled,” said another former official who was a part of the Safir administration. “It makes it difficult for the public to give these four police officers the benefit of the doubt.”

Additional reporting by William Berlind and Nick Paumgarten.

Can General Rudy Control His Cop Army?