New York Daily News

June 13, 2004

PAL center's name opens racial divide

By KERRY BURKE DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

   
  The Revs. Charles Norris (l.) and Sam Zimmerman demonstrate outside PAL's Edward Byrne Center in Queens that was named in honor of slain officer.
 
  Byrne's father, Matthew, attends dedication ceremony in May.

The decision to name a new Police Athletic League center in South Jamaica, Queens, after a certain slain cop has stirred anger and resentment in the community.

The Edward Byrne Center does not yet bear the fallen officer's name, though the dedication ceremony took place a month ago. And if a group of community leaders and residents have their way, it never will.

The reason? Edward Byrne was white.

"The center is in the middle of an African-American community," said the Rev. Charles Norris of the Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church. "It should be named for a slain African-American law enforcement officer."

Norris has led two protests outside the $40 million facility on Guy Brewer Blvd., calling on the Police Athletic League to drop the idea.

Byrne was a 22-year-old rookie cop when he was shot and killed in 1988 while sitting in a patrol car on 107th Ave. He was guarding a witness who was to testify against a murderous drug gang led by jailed crack kings Lorenzo (Fat Cat) Nichols and Howard (Pappy) Mason.

The NYPD called the slaying an assassination after an investigation determined that the murder was ordered from prison. Byrne has since become a kind of patron saint of a host of anti-drug and anti-crime campaigns.

His father, retired NYPD Lt. Matthew Byrne, was surprised to hear about local opposition.

"It was a decision made by the PAL to name the center. They notified us, and we respect their decision," said Byrne, who declined further comment.

The head of the police union, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch, suggested the community groups were off base.

"When Police Officer Byrne gave his life, he gave it for all of the community regardless of race," said Lynch. "He should be remembered for that deed in the same way."

The four-story center was dedicated in a May 4 ceremony attended by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the longtime chairman of the PAL.

But protesters outside that day said the community was never part of the process.

"It was very disrespectful. They just totally ignored the community's wishes," said Betty Dopson, of the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People.

She said Byrne's death "was a tragedy ... but there are heroes of color who are unrecognized."

Norris said he had a list of seven names of fallen black officers but would not divulge them till the PAL agreed to remove Byrne's name from the center.

"There is no plan to change the center's name because that would be an insult to the Byrne family," said PAL Executive Director John Ryan.

But, he admitted, "We could have done more in reaching out to the community."

Ryan said there is a plan to erect a "Wall of Fame" within the center honoring officers of all colors who died in the line of duty in Queens.