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Backlash builds over police tactics

Shooting in New York is galvanizing civil rights leaders across thecountry to protest police conduct toward racial minorities.

Six weeks after the controversial police shooting of an African immigrant here, the incident is expanding from a local police-brutality case into a nationwide civil rights protest.

It is raising some of the largest concerns about police powers since the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers in 1991.

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While the controversy hasn't spawned the social unrest of the King beating, it is drawing national civil rights figures to New York to protest police conduct toward minorities - and galvanizing local activists who haven't marched since the 1960s.

"The reason the Diallo incident has sparked such a response is that it is not just an isolated tragedy, but a symptom of a broader problem," says David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law School in Washington. The incident involves four white New York police officers who killed black immigrant Amadou Diallo in a barrage of 41 bullets as he stood in the doorway of his apartment building.

The shooting has refocused attention on the way police treat racial minorities on several fronts. Many minority youths complain that they are routinely frisked as they walk down streets.

A number of states appear to have used racial profiles in determining what motorists to pull over. Last weekend, President Clinton acknowledged police problems in his weekly radio address and earmarked more money for police training and community relations.

At the same time, the Justice Department now confirms it is investigating police departments in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and state troopers in New Jersey for patterns of civil-rights abuses. A spokeswoman says the caseload has increased from a "handful" of cases to "several."

Many African-Americans aren't waiting for the results. Take the Rev. Bertha Wright. The last time the pastor felt handcuffs on her wrists was during the civil-rights marches of the 1960s. Now she is joining protesters outside New York's One Police Plaza - and fully expects to get arrested.

"We want justice," says Ms. Wright, who leads the St. James African Methodist Episcopal church in Harlem.

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Wright is part of a daily lunch-hour picket line outside police headquarters. Initially, the marches were composed of local activists, lead by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a controversial figure.

Widening protest

But the efforts have now started to attract more mainline politicians. This week, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York and former Mayor David Dinkins were put in cuffs. Yesterday, Kweisi Mfume, head of the national NAACP, joined the protests.

Their complaints are reaching some ears. On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced he would begin a civil rights investigation into improper police searches of individuals and property.

He says he will collect data, interview officials, and talk to people who have been stopped. During his fall campaign, he says, it was a recurring theme of African-American citizens.

The civil rights investigations come in the wake of a prolonged crack down on crime that has been spearheaded by the nation's mayors. They have built up street crime units that drive around in unmarked cars looking for potential criminals.

They have built war rooms and use sophisticated computer programs to look for crime patterns. And they have added thousands of new police officers. These efforts have contributed to a dramatic reduction in the nation's crime rate - including in minority communities.

But questions persist over the impact of some of the aggressive tactics. In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) denies that the police are abusing minorities. On Tuesday, for example, he termed the civil-rights protests "purely partisan politics." And he defended the New York police.

"The reality is that the police are significantly more restrained than four to five years ago," Mr. Giuliani said.

Yet even some police organizations admit the civil rights violations are starting to undermine the good work. Actions such as racial profiling "are undermining public trust in the minority communities," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

Mr. Williams, for example, cites the issue of racial profiling in Maryland, where police stops are being monitored as a result of a lawsuit. African-Americans comprise 16 percent of the driving population, but they are stopped 77 percent of the time.

One dentist purchased a flashy car but was stopped 100 times in a year. Williams says he got rid of the car because he couldn't take the harassment any more.

"There's a disconnect between the policies we write and what happens when the rubber meets the road," says Williams.

Some worry that the questionable police practices will reduce the involvement of minorities in community affairs - further balkanizing American cities.

"A lot of African-American parents are afraid, so when it comes to going to a concert or dance, they are afraid of the risk of getting pulled over or arrested and beaten," says Eric Neisser, acting dean of the Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J. "It's a very insidious effect. People are afraid to participate."

If police conduct is not addressed, "it will have a corrosive effect on the segments of society the police are supposed to serve," says John Crew, director of the Police Practices Project for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco.

Although Mr. Clinton is adding $49 million in new spending to try to address the issue, Mr. Crew is disappointed that only $1 million of the money will be used for accountability.

"What this is saying is that they don't want to offend law-enforcement officials who are defensive about any public discussion of police misconduct," he says.

Still, law-enforcement officials say that police work has become more dangerous and officers need to take special precautions to protect themselves. The complaints have to be balanced "against the police officer's right to go home to his family at the end of his shift," says Rich Roberts, a public information officer at the International Union of Police Associations. "The police officer is at a greater risk now than ever."

California case

In Riverside, Calif., four police officers felt they were at risk when they approached a car where a young woman, Tyisha Miller, was lying ill in late December. The police thought she had a gun. They shot and killed her. Her death has drawn repeated protests from civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

"The Riverside black community is not just awake, but wide awake," says Sterling Stuckey, a former civil rights activist and now a history professor at the University of California, Riverside. "We're closely watching the public officials."

Williams believes the best solution to police misconduct is accountability. He and others say police brass have to act quickly to weed out officers who overstep their bounds.

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