- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

High-profile killings put cops in spotlight

NEW YORK Virgilio Torres remembers being a 10-year-old who would run over to the local police precinct to watch the morning roll call. In those days when few would dare to treat a cop as a target the muster took place outdoors in the streets of Brooklyn.

"I always wanted to be a cop," he said. "I don't know, maybe 'cause I thought I could do some good."

Now 49 years old, Officer Torres looks back on a varied and often harrowing 17-year career in the New York Police Department, including the day a 16-year-old youth pulled a revolver on him.

Mr. Torres, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, repeatedly yelled "Drop it," all the while thinking that his own son was about the same age as the young man.

"He stood there about 40 seconds, and I'm saying to myself, 'I hope he puts the gun down, or I'll have to fire.' "

The boy finally dropped the gun and the incident ended without bloodshed, but Officer Torres will never forget facing that stark moment of decision one that police officers dread.

It is moments such as this that have led to the latest crisis in the 38,000-man NYPD, especially two recent encounters in which unarmed men Amadou Diallo on Feb. 4, 1999, and Patrick Dorismond on March 16 this year were shot and killed by police.

A much-ballyhooed idea for federal oversight of the department has not only eroded police morale but also placed the police department squarely in the cross fire of the Senate race between New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"They'll do their job. It can affect how much you care," said Officer Torres of the predicament cops face, "You respond, but there's something missing."

Thursday, about 2,000 demonstrators, mostly Haitian immigrants, marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in protest against police department tactics. Much of their anger was triggered by an Albany jury's not-guilty verdict against the officers who killed Mr. Diallo. Adding to the fury is the mayor's release of Mr. Dorismond's sealed juvenile record after his death.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a friend and adviser to Mrs. Clinton, has led daily marches in Manhattan this past week, stepping up demands for the intervention of a federal police monitor.

The idea is reported to be one of the recommendations in a report authored by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Commission Chairman Mary Frances Berry, one of six Democratic appointees on the eight-member panel, has contributed money to Mrs. Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

In addition, the Justice Department and federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Brooklyn have been investigating the police department since 1997 after a police assault on Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant.

Mr. Giuliani, who has not officially announced his candidacy against Mrs. Clinton in the Senate race, is under attack, and the NYPD itself has become a pawn in the racial politics that has engulfed both parties, media critics and the city's liberal elite.

Critics portray the NYPD as a Giuliani operation out of control. Although every cop is aware that under these circumstances, any misstep involving the apprehension of minorities could land them in high-profile trouble, they are still under pressure to continue the unchallenged success that the Giuliani administration has had in dramatically reducing crime. Homicides rose by 6 percent last year, but the overall crime rate sunk to its lowest in 30 years.

"I feel sorry when I look at my young rookies," said Capt. Tom Gangone, 51, a 32-year veteran of the force who commands the 90th Precinct in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. "I know what they have to go through."

Capt. Gangone notes, however, that he has seen morale worse in the past, especially during probes of police corruption. "You have to be very thick-skinned and think before you act," he added.

Steve Fishner, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, said that the pressure has not impaired police performance. "The cops out in the street are not thinking of Mayor Giuliani and the election when they're out on the street," he said. However, he added, "Almost everything a cop does is discretionary. They don't want to get jammed up."

As for the mayor, he has chastised reporters who questioned him about the weeklong rallies led by Mr. Sharpton, saying that demonstrators were creating a false image of the police. "I've moved beyond what they are focusing on. There are other lives in New York City."

Adding to City Hall's frustration is a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday indicating that the mayor's popularity rating is at an all-time low. The survey found that only 37 percent approved of his performance, down from 74 percent in February 1998. In answer to the question, "Are race relations generally bad?" those who answered in the affirmative represented 58 percent of the whites polled, 71 percent of blacks and 70 percent of Hispanics.

Mr. Giuliani brushed off the survey, telling the media: "I can see the coverage that you've all engaged in the past two to three months, and I'm surprised that the impression of the public isn't worse. But it'll change."

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