ON the eve of the Democratic convention here, New York's political and law enforcement officials are taking steps to prevent street disturbances on Manhattan's Upper West Side from escalating into the kind of devastating riots that engulfed Los Angeles this spring.
The street unrest in the Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights followed the shooting in an apartment lobby one week ago of Jose Garcia, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. He was shot in the back during a confrontation with New York police officer Michael O'Keefe who has earned a number of commendations during his six years on the force.
Police claim that Mr. Garcia, who was on probation for a 1989 drug dealing charge, was carrying a loaded and concealed .38 caliber revolver. Witnesses insist that Garcia was unarmed and pleading for his life when he was shot.
Mayor David Dinkins, clearly concerned that a major conflagration could evolve, has visited the largely Dominican neighborhood several times in an effort to restore calm. The same tactic proved effective in Harlem after the Los Angeles riots. Promising justice in a full investigation of the incident, the mayor urged residents to "keep the peace."
A spokesperson for the New York Police Department says that every police officer on the New York force is trained for "a possible riot situation" and that "rotating details" of officers from other precincts are being dispatched to the 34th Precinct in Washington Heights. That neighborhood has one of the highest crime and unemployment rates in the the city. Although the police department will give no specifics, outside analysts estimate that well over 1,000 officers, rather than the usual 300, are being assigned to the area.
Police experts say the speedy response of New York police to the disturbances stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Los Angeles where police did not respond quickly and had trouble gaining control of the streets when they did arrive. Moreover New York police, in an effort to appear inconspicuous, do not use armored cars or other military kinds of equipment, except for helmets. Yet a police spokesperson says that vans and other heavy equipment can be quickly dispatched if the need arises.
Neighborhood groups insist that much more than the Garcia case is at issue. They say the incident is part of a pattern of police misconduct that must be addressed. Some say a second neighborhood resident who died in the violence was pushed from a roof by police; police deny this.
Many of the Spanish-language newspapers circulated in Washington Heights carry frequent and prominent reports of incidents of police brutality. "My experience leads me to believe that more of this goes on than you know unless you live in one of these neighborhoods," insists Tim Wall, a former community organizer who now reads many such newspaper accounts in the course of his work for the Citizens Committee for New York City, which works closely with grass-roots groups.
The New York police department also is currently facing charges that a number of officers in several precincts have engaged in drug trafficking and even murder of those who get in their way.
In contrast to the Los Angeles situation, New York City, under Police Commissioner Lee Brown, an African-American, has been actively courting minorities by trying to broaden police height, weight, and scholastic proficiency requirements. Only 13 percent of the current force is Hispanic. Also, New York police are increasingly assigned to foot patrol in various neighborhoods, while their Los Angeles counterparts tend to patrol from the relative safety of squad cars.