January 30, 2004

No-Win Situation For Commish

By Leonard Levitt

When Police Commissioner Ray Kelly quickly called a white cop's shooting of an unarmed black teenager as having "no justification," he proved once again that sympathizing with the police or with the city's black citizenry can be a zero sum game.

You can't defend one without offending the other.

Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, called Kelly's characterization "absolutely wrong." And a former top NYPD official said it had never been done before.

On the other hand, distrust of the police runs so deep in some quarters that a black city councilman prevented two witnesses from talking to authorities for 48 hours until he personally delivered them to the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.

"The best thing we did was not to give our witnesses to the Police Department," said City Councilman Charles Barron, who is running for mayor.

Barron said he arrived at the home of Timothy Stansbury's grandmother at 6 a.m. Saturday, about five hours after the 19-year-old was shot by Officer Richard Neri on the roof of the Louis Armstrong housing development in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Barron prevented Internal Affairs investigators from questioning the two friends, who he says were in the stairwell with Stansbury when he was shot.

"Then I called the DA," he said. "They were at the 79th precinct. I said, 'We are not allowing them to talk to police.' Once the police get hold of witnesses their stories turn around as in the Central Park jogger case. No one is safe in their hands."

Police confirmed they first interviewed the witnesses - Shawn Rhames and Terrence Fisher - at the district attorney's office Monday morning.

Barron, like a number of black police officers interviewed by this reporter, defended Kelly's controversial characterization of the shooting - but Barron spoke with an added cynicism.

"He had no other choice because he knew there were eyewitnesses," Barron said of Kelly. "To say anything different would be telling a bold-face lie and he knew it."

Barron's comments, like those of the black cops, contrast with those of many law enforcement officials, all of them white, and all of whom criticized Kelly.

"There is a process," a former top police official said. "There wasn't even a preliminary investigation."

Another law enforcement source said, "I understand his desire to calm the waters but by the same token it does put pressure on Hynes to seek an indictment."

Another former top police official said, "While I understood what he was saying and in a certain context he is correct, the starkness of the word doesn't take into consideration the possibility of an accidental shooting, which it probably was.

"And what if he is indicted and acquitted?" the official said, adding that Kelly's phrase "can raise the level of expectations."

Kelly's spokesman and longtime factotum Paul Browne explained to The New York Times that Kelly "tends to call it as he sees it."

But Browne was telling only part of the story.

In May, when Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed African immigrant, was fatally shot by a white police officer in a Chelsea warehouse, Kelly waited a day before making his first statement.

"We think a thorough investigation is warranted," he said.

Three days later, he went further, saying there were "very troubling questions" about the shooting. Never did he say, "There appears to be no justification."

Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney's office, said the Zhongo case is still "active."