Point of View: Op-Ed Articles

Yet Again, Anti-Cop Demagogues Monopolize the Microphone

By Michael Meyers
Wednesday, May 14 2008, 8:28 PM

The worst thing that can come of any tragedy involving police misconduct or misjudgment – whichever way one views the police behavior that led to Sean Bell’s death – is for extremists to set the agenda for justice and reform. Yet that is exactly what happened at the recent “community forum” here on police misconduct held by the John Conyers-led congressional committee.

The rhetoric was deafening: “This is not a New York matter anymore – it is international,” opined Congressman Conyers (D-Mich.). Bell’s death was not a “tragedy,” it was a “crime,” said another participant – blatantly ignoring the inescapable fact that the officers have just been acquitted of criminal charges.

And the Rev. Al Sharpton, the loudest and biggest voice in the room, bellowed that he wanted the withholding of federal funds from the NYPD and other police departments if they cannot demonstrate they’re not practicing “discrimination” – as defined by his “civil rights” lobby.

No civil rights group with a different viewpoint from Sharpton’s was either invited or present to speak up – or to oppose the “demand” for a second, federal case against the three cops, a case that would have to be brought on the theory that they intentionally violated Sean Bell’s civil rights.

Prosecutors couldn’t get over the lower bar of a state conviction. Now activists are leading people to believe they can leap over this even higher hurdle?

But at this week’s forum, sober analysis of the rigorous standards for such a federal civil rights prosecution was not welcome. No, in such times, the shouts of “No justice, no peace!” inevitably drown out sane voices.

Nor did we hear any other point of view when the extremists insisted that the acquittals of the cops in the Sean Bell shooting justified the recent disruptions of the city’s thoroughfares by self-styled civil disobedients. In the eyes of the activists, they were channeling Martin Luther King Jr. as they asserted with a straight face that the three cops, two of whom are black, must (in the name of justice) be charged by the feds.

Here’s the tragedy within the tragedy: Thanks to these orchestrated histrionics, the critical work of those who are truly responsible for ensuring miscreant cops are held to account goes unobserved and unreported.

No protests that I know of, for instance, have been led against the impotence of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Consequently, CCRB Brooklyn-member William Kuntz has been left to wage a lonely battle to prevent a change in the rules that would, if allowed, limit the CCRB’s ability to review administrative closeouts of New Yorkers’ complaints against cops. Such matters, it seems, are not sexy enough for the activists to demand public hearings around.

Nor is enough attention paid to the mounting calls from knowledgeable change agents about how to fix problems of morale, command discipline and accountability within the NYPD. The 1998 report of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Task Force on Police-Community Relations, on which I served, had concrete proposals for police training and testing, and for revamping civilian complaints about police discourtesy and minor misconduct.

Of course all police misconduct can and must be addressed and punished. Of course the NYPD needs diverse leaders as well as rank-and-file cops, and a command structure that is conversant with and cognizant of human rights protections.

But the cynical posturing and jockeying for publicity by extremists in our city, even to the point of dragging the feds into the TV picture, has a cost. Their shenanigans are why rather than having genuine, constructive dialogue, we have a perpetual loop of shrill and cynical charges and countercharges. And that is why, after years of trying to honestly confront problems in police-civilian contacts, so much remains unchanged.

Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.