Friday, June 16, 2000

NEW YORK A “wilding” attack by a gang of youths who sexually molested and robbed young women in Central Park earlier this week has triggered charges that police on the scene did not intervene because the melee involved mainly Puerto Ricans and blacks.

Six suspects have been arrested so far in the investigation, which involved as many as 60 mostly Puerto Rican men stripping, groping and in some cases robbing more than 30 young, mostly white women including a 14-year-old girl after the annual National Puerto Rican Day parade on Sunday.

At least four victims have said police officers rebuffed them when they asked for help. Two of the women, New Jersey college students, have announced they will each file $5 million lawsuits against the city, saying police failed to protect them.

Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, said he thinks the police were, in effect, calling in sick because of their low morale in the aftermath of the politically disastrous Abner Louima torture case and Amadou Diallo police shooting.

“They’re so angry at being targets of community abuse that they’ve slowed down,” he said. “No pay increases, no support from public in the back of their heads they’re thinking, ‘They’re not going to want us to be aggressive and get in conflict with young minority people.’ ”

A reluctance, which Mr. Meyer described as “the anti-police bug,” has bitten both Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir. “New York is starting to look the way it did before Mayor Giuliani took office,” he said.

Former New York Republican Rep. John Le Boutillier said Mr. Giuliani’s decision not to run for the U.S. Senate and his adoption of a softer approach in the wake of health and marital problems are the key to understanding the mayor’s relationship to the NYPD.

“Giuliani got so sensitive to criticism about his prickly personality that he got soft when it’s not in his nature. Since he announced that he’s not running he has become the soft Rudy who is less knee-jerk about supporting the police,” Mr. Le Boutillier said.

Mr. Safir denied that the officers assigned to the Puerto Rican Day parade on neighboring Fifth Avenue were told to relax public drinking regulations to avoid tension between officers and the mostly Hispanic crowd. Several witnesses and some victims have claimed that the attackers were drunk, and that some reeked of marijuana.

“There are no special parameters for the Puerto Rican Day parade,” he said. “We police each parade based on the number of people and the number of spectators.”

Mr. Giuliani, who has repeatedly denied that police have been ordered to restrain themselves in tense situations involving minorities, said city officials were investigating charges that the NYPD did not respond. While he warned some officers could be fired, he added, “What you don’t want to lose sight of here is … ultimately the responsibility lies with the men who were involved in these attacks.”

The NYPD and Mr. Giuliani have been criticized for excessive force in several high-profile cases. Thousands of protesters marched down Fifth Avenue in February when four city police officers were acquitted of all charges in the killing of Mr. Diallo, who was hit by 19 of the 41 bullets fired at him.

And last June, a white police officer was convicted of holding down Mr. Louima, a black Haitian immigrant, in a precinct house bathroom while a second officer beat and sexually tortured Mr. Louima with a broom handle. Two other officers were convicted of lying to investigators.

When Mr. Giuliani was still a Senate candidate, he lost ground to Hillary Rodham Clinton in polls over his response to another police shooting of an unarmed minority man.

Police sources said Thursday the internal affairs division of the New York City Police Department has questioned several dozen captains, sergeants and lieutenants about victims’ claims that their cries for help went unanswered. Officials said at least 2,500 containers of beer and liquor had been confiscated during the celebration.

As of Thursday, 32 women had come forward to identify themselves as victims and view amateur videotapes made at the scene. The tapes show the horror and speed of the attacks girls and women running a gantlet of menacing young men who surrounded them, doused them with water, then grabbed and fondled them. Some of them are shown crying and trying to hold their shredded clothing to cover themselves as they flee.

The victims include a 14-year-old girl, a French couple on their honeymoon, an Associated Press reporter and three British women.

The two women who are suing Josina Lawrence and Ashana Cover, both 21 and from Somerset, N.J. announced their plans at a news conference with the Rev. Al Sharpton at his National Action Network headquarters in Harlem. They said a crowd of drunk men sprayed them with water, ripped off their clothes and sexually molested them. Miss Cover said she fought to keep her blouse on as she was pushed to the ground and a man put his hand up her shorts.

Miss Lawrence said she was similarly treated as the men also pushed her to the ground. The women said they told their story to a group of cops, but that at least one officer said he could not leave his traffic post and referred her to a police post on Madison Avenue.

NYPD Assistant Chief William Taylor said that four men arrested will be charged with sexual abuse in the first degree, with the possibility of additional charges. Those arrested are: John Taylor, 24 of Queens; Isaias Lozanno, 19, of Queens; Stephen Burke, 32, of Jersey City, N.J., who surrendered through his parole officer; and Manuel Nunez, 18, of the Bronx. The suspected ringleader, Manuel Vargas, 18, is still at large.

Two other arrested suspects, Tremayne Bain, 23, and David Rowe, 24, were released on bail. The NYPD has released photographs of seven men believed to have taken part in the rampage. More than 50 tips have been phoned in to the department.

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