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."

The next time there was rioting in New York City -- in the Washington Heights section, in the summer of 1992 --Lee Brown was in California. He resigned that August, a year after Crown Heights and a year before the state report was issued, to return to Houston, where he cared for his ailing wife and taught at TSU. But he was gone again the following summer, after the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to confirm him as the Clinton administration's drug czar. He was questioned about Crown Heights during his confirmation hearing, but the Girgenti report arrived a few weeks after he won the appointment.

Dinkins wasn't so lucky -- he lost his job in 1993 to Rudolph Giuliani, partly because of the Crown Heights fiasco. Cuomo lost the governorship the following year. Brown, of course, is back in Houston, running for mayor.

As might be imagined, Brown takes strong exception to the Girgenti report. He suggests -- he doesn't come right out and say it, of course -- that he was whipsawed in New York's tortured ethnic and racial conflicts and fingered as a convenient scapegoat.

Crown Heights, Brown wants you to know, was "just one event" in an exemplary law enforcement career stretching back to 1960 and including his postings as a sheriff in California, police chief in Atlanta and Houston, police commissioner in New York and member of President Clinton's cabinet.

"Each position I achieved," Brown said in an interview last week, "was based on my being successful in the previous position. I've handled many incidents in my career, I've made many decisions, and those decisions in retrospect have always turned out to be the proper decision, in the broader context.

"The people of Houston know the kind of police chief I was, because they watched me for eight years. They watched me take a police department that had a national reputation as being out of control and change it so that when I left in 1990, it was viewed as a model by which other police agencies judged themselves."

Brown maintained that Girgenti's report "must be viewed in the context of New York politics, and not Houston politics," and noted several times that it was undertaken and issued prior to an upcoming mayor's race and governor's race. Although Cuomo is a Democrat, as are Dinkins and Brown, Brown contended that the governor asked for the Girgenti investigation only because of "pressure from the Crown Heights community," and on that he would say no more.

He did, however, claim that the methodology of Girgenti's investigation was flawed -- he said, for instance, that the passage cited in the above-quoted Murray Kempton column was wrong and that his car was never pelted with rocks -- and he asserted that its conclusions were "biased" toward a "rapid response" style of policing.

"Where I have a great disagreement with the report is that I was out on those streets every day and every night, not sitting behind a desk at police headquarters," said Brown. "We used the same strategy that the New York City police department had used successfully for 20 years, and we made adjustments as need be, and because of my presence, because of our making the adjustments, we did not have any deaths after the initial events. We did not have any serious injuries, we contained [the violence] to a six-block area and we had only four buildings damaged -- not seven, as talked about in the report."

Several times during our 20-minute conversation, Brown repeated that inventory as if reeling off the win-place-show at the horse track: no deaths, no serious injuries, six blocks, four buildings.

But there was something else Brown wanted to say about the Girgenti report and Crown Heights.

"I think it's reprehensible that at a time when we're trying to bring this city together, anyone would want to use New York political reports to divide our community, and particularly my concern [is] about the history of the relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community. To me, that's sacred ground, and I'm outraged that anyone would want to inflict politics from another city into what's going on here."  

Brown can stow his outrage. As far as I know, no one is trying to "inflict" New York's politics on Houston's, nor is "anyone" trying to use the Girgenti report to divide blacks and Jews -- and the Press writing about it certainly doesn't constitute such. What would be equally reprehensible, though, would be for Brown -- or "anyone" -- to try to foreclose public discussion of the report by claiming it would be "divisive" or would somehow be trespassing on "sacred ground." It is, and will be, a legitimate point to be raised by Brown's opponents.

There probably is an element of truth in Brown's suggestion that he was a victim of New York's unforgiving and arcane political disarrangements, and it's also true, as he pointed out, that the Crown Heights disturbances were hardly on the scale of the post-Rodney King verdict rioting in Los Angeles or other, more deadly, urban upheavals in the 1960s.

Still, the conclusions of the Girgenti report mesh with the image that has shadowed Lee Brown as he has gone around the country adding to his impressive resume -- that of the aloof and somewhat passively detached bureaucrat, more comfortable with theorizing and conceptualizing than with doing.

The picture of Brown rings even more true in light of the meaningless non-responses he's offered to almost any specific issue he's been asked about since he began running for mayor -- issues that aren't being "inflicted" on Houston from outside of town. Consider, for instance, the way Brown has addressed the two notions recently floated by Bob Lanier, who's busy building his own self-monuments while seeking to extend his policies well past his term-limited tenure.

As previously reported in the Chronicle, Brown appears to be alone among the mayoral candidates in favoring Lanier's proposal to lock in the transfer of Metro funds to the city with a decade-long contract, perhaps without voter approval. Which is fine, except Brown's reasoning doesn't seem to make

much sense. The Chronicle, Brown told me, "didn't get the complete answer to the question." Actually, the Chronicle did get the complete answer, such as it was, and it wasn't Brown who gave it -- it was a spokesman who was quoted in the story. For posterity's sake, here's the complete answer, again, straight -- sort of -- from the candidate's mouth:

"I don't see a problem [with a city-Metro contract] if the mayor is able to change it as times change, if Metro is able to change it or if the taxpayers desire to change it. If you have that clause in there to allow it to change, then there's no problem from my perspective."

So why bother in the first place? And shouldn't we have an election in the first place, since the transfer under Lanier has been well above the level voters okayed in the late eighties?

Lanier also has talked about a similar codifying of funding for his Neighborhoods to Standard and Parks to Standard programs. This is how Brown responded when I asked him about that idea:

"I don't hear any discussion of that at this time."
That was it. Not yes, not no, not maybe -- he doesn't hear any discussion of it, although his patron the mayor has raised the possibility. Brown did go on to add that he, naturally, is all for "the Neighborhoods to Standard concept" because, he related, "it comes from what I did here when I initiated neighborhood-oriented policing."

At this stage of the campaign, Brown seems perfectly content to be Lanier's surrogate -- or his unquestioning puppet, if you will -- and unwilling to demonstrate true leadership by a) taking a clear and unequivocal stand on something, anything, or by b) showing some independence and risking alienating Lanier and his cronies (although before it's over, Brown's handlers -- that is, the same people who ran Lanier's 1991 campaign -- will certainly find something on which he can disagree with the mayor, just for appearance's sake).

Voters may well want more of Lanier, and may be persuaded that Brown is the next best thing. But he's no Lanier. And if for some reason his patron or puppeteer were not around -- Lanier, after all, is 72, and he's been taken to the emergency room from City Hall how many times? -- it's fair to wonder how Brown would operate alone in a job that demands creativity, attentiveness, a strong arm and a thick backside.

Unfortunately for Brown, Crown Heights may offer us a clue.

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