Lee Brown's Crown Heights Problem

On Monday, August 19, 1991, a car in a motorcade escorting the "grand rebbe" of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect careened over a curb in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, killing a seven-year-old African-American boy and injuring his cousin. Gavin Cato's death was the first of an exponential series of small tragedies that destroyed lives and property and damaged careers, and which would haunt New York City's political landscape for the next few seasons.

The mayor of New York at the time was David Dinkins, who liked to speak of his racially polarized city as a "beautiful mosaic." Dinkins's police commissioner was Lee Brown, who had taken the job a year and a half earlier, after spending what in retrospect must have seemed like eight relatively placid years as Houston's police chief.

In Crown Heights, where the Orthodox Jewish Lubavitchers and African-Americans lived uneasily side by side, the tensility of Dinkins's beautiful mosaic was severely tested. A few hours after Gavin Cato's death, a mob of a dozen or so African-Americans, some allegedly shouting "Get the Jews!", attacked Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Hasidic scholar from Australia who was stabbed to death during the melee.

For the next two days, through that Wednesday night, Crown Heights was beset by civil unrest. Blacks and Hasidim clashed, pedestrians were assaulted, cars were set afire, businesses were looted, bottles and rocks were tossed at police officers. Jewish residents complained of inadequate police protection and unresponsiveness to 911 calls. Finally, on Thursday, thanks to a markedly increased and aggressive police presence, the disturbances were effectively quelled.

But "Crown Heights" would not go away. Hasidic Jews were in an uproar in October 1992, after a state court jury acquitted the 17-year-old accused of stabbing Rosenbaum, leading New York Governor Mario Cuomo to assign his state criminal justice director to investigate the rioting and the way it was handled by the Dinkins administration. At the time, Cuomo's action was widely viewed as a means of relieving the political pressures that Crown Heights had brought to bear on Dinkins. It didn't turn out that way.

On July 20, 1993, New York Criminal Justice Director Richard Girgenti issued his "Report to the Governor on the Disturbances in Crown Heights: An Assessment of the City's Preparedness and Response to Civil Disorder." The 600-page document, while critical of Dinkins and saddling him with the ultimate responsibility for a tepid police response to the lawlessness, was absolutely damning in its judgment of Lee Brown.

"In a sense," declared the executive summary of the Girgenti report, "a leadership vacuum existed at the highest levels of the [police] department."

As the late, great Newsday columnist Murray Kempton wrote at the time: "Higher public office in New York is a bastion of ignorance that no fact can penetrate except as a rock thrown through your windshield. At 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday August 21 (1991), then-Police Commissioner Lee Brown informed journalists that Crown Heights's streets were under control. He was then driven to P.S. 167 for a meeting with David N. Dinkins. When the commissioner arrived, the Girgenti report informs us: 'A group broke away from the crowd and converged on Brown's car, pelting it with rocks. A 10-13 for 'Car One' [i.e. the commissioner's car] was broadcast and additional police officers came streaming in. At least nine police officers were injured."

Later that Wednesday, according to the report, Dinkins visited eight wounded officers at Kings County Hospital. While there, he and his deputy mayor met with Brown, questioned the "effectiveness of his tactics" and directed him to immediately "take all steps necessary to end the violence."

"Mayor Dinkins later acknowledged that the police had been using techniques for a peaceful demonstration, but not for violent civil unrest," Girgenti reported. "First Deputy Commissioner Raymond Kelley, not previously involved, assumed responsibility for devising more appropriate tactics."

In other words, Brown's top assistant -- later his successor as commissioner -- took over. More cops were assigned to the streets and held in reserve, mobile arrest teams were deployed and the officers were told, in no uncertain terms, to make arrests. On Thursday, "relative order" was restored in Crown Heights.

And two years later, this is how the Girgenti report characterized Lee Brown's performance:

"The police commissioner did not effectively fulfill his ultimate responsibility for managing the department's activities to suppress rioting and preserve the public peace.

"Commissioner Lee Brown asserted that his job was to make sure that his uniformed commanders had the support they needed. He considered it the responsibility of his staff to identify problems of resources or tactics and bring them to his attention. He did not closely oversee the police response to the disturbance.

"In times of emergency, the public can reasonably expect the police commissioner to ask probing questions of key aides on the scene, as well as monitor ongoing developments. There is no evidence that Lee P. Brown provided this kind of leadership during the first three days of disturbances in Crown Heights. Evaluated against these standards, the commissioner's leadership and performance were inadequate."

Few people rushed to Lee Brown's defense. The ever-politically correct New York Times was unequivocal in assaying Girgenti's "exhaustive and balanced" report. "The central question," the Times editorialized, "has always been why Mr. Dinkins did not overrule his malfunctioning police commissioner."

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