Big Apple's police play race card against the mayor

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THINK of a small densely populated country of around 7 million people, mostly black, Hispanic or Asian, but policed by an overwhelmingly white force, many of whom commute from distant suburban oases to work every day.

The country is New York, where depending on the point of view, the 50,000-strong, 78 per cent-white police force might be viewed either as an occupying army or a bulwark against rampant crime in an environment that is increasingly reminiscent of the Third World. As the city's white population has turned from being a majority to a minority, a widening rift has emerged in a city that was once a bastion of liberalism.

Tension between the police and the civil authority in New York has been rising since the election of the city's first black mayor, David Dinkins, two years ago. But when more than 10,000 off-duty police officers marched on City Hall last week, and then several hundred - many wearing guns - smashed down police barriers and surged up the front steps, the malaise facing the city was put into sharp relief.

The 20 guards protecting City Hall were quickly overwhelmed, but the policemen, many of them drunk and almost all of them white, refrained from breaking down the main door which had been barred on the inside.

'Somebody ought to call a cop,' said a nervous city official, half in earnest. Outside the building meanwhile the policemen shouted crude racial messages and held up placards saying 'Dump the washroom attendant', referring to Mr Dinkins. Another placard read 'Dinkins Sucks' and had a cartoon of the mayor with an Afro hairstyle and protruding lips.

Another remarkable aspect of the mini-riot was the presence of a prominent city politician in the midst of the policemen, leading them in a rousing condemnation of Mayor Dinkins. The race card, which lurks behind so much of this city's politics, was being openly flaunted by Rudolf Giuliani, the once feared prosecutor who helped crack the Mafia, and put Wall Street thieves and big-time drug dealers behind bars for lengthy periods of time.

Mr Giuliani hopes to become mayor of the city in 1993 and clearly believes that his law and order image, with its subtext of racial enmity, will have wide appeal among voters.

Policemen and women complain that they have lost control of the street because of Mayor Dinkins's policy of trying to soothe the simmering anger of poor neighbourhoods every time a policeman hurts or kills a suspect while trying to make an arrest.

'I've been called a cracker, honkey, whitey mother . . . for no reason, just for standing on Seventh Avenue with a blue suit on,' complained officer Raymond McGowan of Queens.

The police were particularly incensed when the mayor appeared to take the side of a drug-dealing victim, shot dead in a confrontation with a policeman during the summer. The shooting led to a riot in a Dominican area of Manhattan. To soothe community anger at the police, the mayor invited the victim's family to his residence and paid for the body's removal to the Dominican Republic.

The police are also furious at the mayor for blocking a decision to issue a 9mm semi-automatic pistol to replace the hand-guns they presently use. Adding to their feeling of being outgunned on the street and without political backing in City Hall, the police are furious with Mayor Dinkins for proposing an all-civilian review board to investigate police brutality and corruption.

The demonstration of 10,000 policemen was meant to send a signal to the mayor to allow police participation on the review board. Instead, the rowdy protest has had a counter-productive effect and the independent review panel is expected to go ahead as planned, despite the anger of New York's finest, as they like to be called.

(Photograph omitted)