NYPD: The fear of friendly fire

  • Article by: MICHAEL POWELL , New York Times
  • Updated: May 30, 2009 - 5:46 PM

Diverse as ever, the New York police force continues to struggle with shootings between colleagues on opposite sides of the color line.

NEW YORK -- Two black police officers stand outside the 70th Precinct station in Brooklyn and consider the disastrous turn of events of Thursday night: an off-duty black officer dead in a Harlem street, felled by the bullets of a white officer who mistook him for a threat. ¶ One runs his hand across his corn-rowed scalp; he is disgusted. "Same deal always," he says of the deadly encounter between colleagues. "They'll say it's about training." ¶ A block away, a Latino officer with six years on the force acknowledges being conflicted. "Tell you the truth, I feel bad for the shooter. It happens so fast, and now he has got to live with this." His voice trails off.

At the Newkirk Avenue subway station, a black officer of many years' experience stares straight ahead. "There's your training, and there's your reaction," he says quietly of such split-second tragedies. "That's two different things."

Its ranks are more diverse than ever, its training and rules on the use of force more rigorous than in the past, yet the New York Police Department still struggles with the problem of fraternal shootings across the color line. Beginning in 1940, when white officers in Harlem mistook a black officer, John A. Holt Jr., for a burglar and shot him dead in his own apartment building, these relatively rare shootings come attended by an air of political ritual: Protesters march, panels are appointed and reforms are most often accepted by police commissioners.

After a white officer shot and killed an undercover detective, William Capers, in 1972, the department drew up guidelines intended to prevent fraternal fire and undercover officers began wearing their badges on strings around their necks.

In 1994, after a white officer fired shots into the back of a black undercover transit officer, Desmond Robinson, the police commissioner, William Bratton, acknowledged what seemed painfully obvious to black undercover officers -- the department needed to appoint a panel to examine the racial assumptions of their white colleagues.

"It's a reality," Bratton said. "Minority officers are at risk."

Fears amid a paradox

New York has fewer fatal police shootings per officer than any other large police department in the nation, according to a department official. Since 1990, fewer than a half-dozen police officers have been shot by other officers in New York. And the department recently enacted stricter rules governing when and how officers should use firearms. But a 25-year-old police officer, Omar J. Edwards, now lies in a city morgue, and his death imposes its own reality. Anguished cries and tears come accompanied by questions about whether too many officers harbor too many assumptions and fire too quickly.

"This is the most Shakespearean aspect of policing," said state Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn, who is black and a former police captain. "Your greatest fear is to be shot and slain on duty, and that's only matched by your fear of shooting another officer."

He adds: "If you speak with nine out of 10 officers of color they would tell you that when they hear sirens, in their head they are thinking: 'I hope these cops know that I'm one of the good guys.'"

That worry comes embedded in a paradox: The New York Police Department has never been so diverse. A majority of the cadets in the last rookie police class were members of ethnic and racial minorities, offering a rainbow cross-section of the city. Overall, 47.8 percent of the city's officers are white, 28.7 percent Hispanic, 17.9 percent black and 5.4 percent Asian.

But, replenished although this department is, its very youth and diversity present a challenge. Edwards had been on the force for two years; the officer who shot him, Andrew P. Dunton, had been an officer for 4 1/2 years. Younger officers, say those who teach them, are more likely to experience surges of judgment-blurring testosterone and adrenaline.

In Edwards' case, the young, off-duty officer apparently had drawn his service weapon and was chasing a man who had tried to break into his car when he encountered his on-duty colleagues, who according to their initial testimony saw his gun, shouted "Police" and fired when he turned to face them. Such actions might have been in violation of departmental protocols.

The department's policy manual -- the Patrol Guide -- is specific in putting the responsibility on the off-duty officer in such situations. In one section, titled "confrontation situations," it says that if an off-duty officer is trying to make an arrest and is confronted by an on-duty officer, the off-duty officer must abandon the arrest effort and comply with the on-duty officer's orders.

Not a classroom experience

"The department has very good training on use of force and firearm simulators," said Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a specialist in the use of police force. "The physiological impact on the officer is great. It's very detrimental to solid judgment. Your adrenaline is pumping, and your visual skills are impaired.

"It's not a situation you can replicate in a classroom."

The city is a measurably safer place than it was two decades ago, when the number of homicides hovered around 2,000 each year. Last year, the city recorded 516 homicides. When former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani folded the large transit and housing police forces into the New York Police Department in the mid-1990s, he eliminated much of the perilous confusion that came with balkanized forces. But particularly for young officers, whose training comes in high-crime precincts, New York can cast a confusing, even threatening shadow.

Officers, many of whom grew up in segregated neighborhoods, find themselves challenged to remember on a daily basis that their own come in every shape and color.

"There was a time if you were a cop you could grab your gun and go into the streets and count on a stereotype to protect you," said Eugene J. O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer. "Now the cops look like everybody, and everybody looks like a cop.

"So stereotypes," he said, "offer no protection at all."

'Everyone carries baggage'

Instinctual judgments about race and crime are woven into the culture of the streets. "We tend to pretend in the police force that we don't see race, we don't see ethnicity, but we do," said Adams, the former police captain. "One of my cops once said that if he sees a nonuniformed black man with a gun, he takes precautions for himself; if he sees a white guy with a gun, he takes precautions for both because he knows it could be a fellow cop."

Desmond Robinson lived this experience. In 1994, in the confusion of the 53rd Street subway station, he chased a teenager with a gun. Another undercover officer, Peter Del-Debbio, who is white, came from the other direction and fired at Robinson, the last few shots pumped into his back at close range.

Del-Debbio was convicted of second-degree assault and sentenced to five years' probation. Robinson recovered and left the force.

"Everyone carries baggage subconsciously, and retraining the mind takes lots of work," said Robinson, who lives in Florida. "There are a lot of black undercovers out there, and officers need to understand that not every black man with a gun is a criminal."

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