State Launches Probe of Crown Heights While Mayor Denies Restraining Police
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State Launches Probe of Crown Heights While Mayor Denies Restraining Police

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Gov. Mario Cuomo has ordered a sweeping investigation of the city’s handling of last year’s rioting in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, while a group of Jews filed a lawsuit charging that the mayor and police commissioner conspired not to protect Jews from the mob.

The charges were made despite Mayor David Dinkins’ repeated denials that he had tied police hands during the four days of rioting.

“There is not a single shred of evidence that I held the (New York Police Department) back — and there never will be,” an angry Dinkins said Tuesday in an address at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“And every time this utterly false charge is repeated, the social fabric of our city tears just a little bit more. It must stop. It’s got to stop.”

He said some of his critics hold the mistaken belief that because he is black, he automatically sides with the black rioters.

“They see everything through an ethnic prism,” he said, referring to his critics.

The mayor’s protests came as Cuomo — in a highly unusual move — ordered his director of criminal justice, Richard Girgenti, to probe the entire incident.

Cuomo said he was acting because of the “feeling of mistrust and suspicion of the criminal justice system” that followed last month’s acquittal of Lemrick Nelson Jr., 17, for the murder of hasidic rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum, 29, was fatally stabbed by a mob of blacks chanting, “Kill the Jew, kill the Jew,” just three hours after rioting erupted through the streets of Crown Heights on the evening of Aug. 19, 1991.

The rioting began after a black child, 7-year-old Gavin Cato, was struck and killed by a driver of a car in a motorcade escorting the Lubavitcher rebbe.

Cuomo asked Girgenti to review the response of police to the disturbance, which continued for four straight days. Cuomo also gave Girgenti the power to unseal files pertaining to the investigation of Rosenbaum’s death and the prosecution of Nelson. No other person was charged with Rosenbaum’s murder.

The U.S. Justice Department has also opened an investigation into Rosenbaum’s murder to see if anyone can be prosecuted for violating his civil rights.

Nelson was acquitted of all charges in the Rosenbaum slaying after jurors discounted prosecution evidence that included a blood-soaked knife allegedly found in Nelson’s possession, Rosenbaum’s identification of Nelson as his assailant and police testimony that Nelson had admitted stabbing the rabbinic student. Members of the jury, which included six blacks, four Hispanics and two whites, cited inconsistencies in police testimony in explaining their verdict.

Rewards totaling $120,000 have been offered for the arrest and conviction of Rosenbaum’s killers.

The class action suit filed by the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council in federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday charges that the civil rights of Crown Heights residents were violated by Dinkins and former city Police Commissioner Lee Brown.

The complaint alleges that the city officials conspired to allow blacks to race through the streets and “vent their rage over the incident (Cato’s death) at the expense of the lives and property of Jews and other non-blacks present in the Crown Heights community.”

The suit also alleges that by their actions the mayor and police commissioner permitted the “murderous, anti-Semitic rampage which engulfed the Brooklyn community of Crown Heights for four days.”

Jewish leaders were initially reluctant to comment on the suit. But one said privately that it only “adds fuel” to the racial unrest dividing the city.

“It’s another accelerant in heightening tensions between the Jewish community and black community,” the official said. “There is a difference between welcoming the state investigation, which is a constructive approach to learning what happened, and a lawsuit that accuses Brown and Dinkins of wrongdoing. You’re starting with a conclusion.”

But Frank Snitow, the lawyer who filed the suit, said he was troubled to hear that anyone “would find it inappropriate to seek legal redress in behalf of individuals who were victimized because they are Jews. Jews have traditionally recognized that the way to stake a claim is through a beit din (Jewish court) or the civil courts.”

Since the verdict in the criminal trial last month, Jews in Crown Heights have held several demonstrations condemning the verdict and accusing Dinkins. In one demonstration outside Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence, demonstrators paraded with posters bearing Dinkins’ photo and the words, “Wanted for Murder.”

In an interview last week following remarks to the Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly, Dinkins became livid when asked about the posters.

“I think it is the height of irresponsibility,” he said. “Those persons involved there know full well I didn’t hold back the cops, as they accuse me (of doing).”

Dinkins cited newspaper reports at the time in which a police official was quoted as saying his men were unprepared for the disturbance. Dinkins said the officer said police “did not anticipate the depth of feeling” Cato’s death triggered.

On the night Rosenbaum was stabbed, Dinkins recalled, he raced to the hospital to see him. “I went to him and looked into his eyes and held his hand,” said the mayor, a pained expression on his face.

In his address to the G.A., Dikins announced that Nobel laureate and author Elie Wiesel had accepted his invitation to “spearhead a citywide campaign against hate and anti-Semitism.”

“I consider him a friend, and he’s an international figure and a leader for causes of peace,” Dinkins said later.

The mayor said also that newly installed Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and he “are completely committed to finding the people who took part in the lynching of Rosenbaum.”

Activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, religious leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and leader of some of the protests against Dinkins, was sitting in the front row when Dinkins spoke at the seminary Tuesday.

Dinkins looked directly at Weiss when he cautioned clergy to be “vigilant with their words” because they “can inflame situations.”

And he warned that if the division continues it may further polarize the city. He cited an incident last week in which a Jewish city councilman, Noach Dear, called a black councilwoman, Mary Pinkett, an anti-Semite for refusing to condemn the Nelson verdict.

“Hear it well,” he said. “African-American legislators will line up and make a list of legislators who are Jewish and say, `Did you denounce the verdict in the Michael Stewart case, in the Eleanor Bumpers case?'”

He was referring to two controversial police shootings of blacks.

Weiss later told reporters that by attacking him Dinkins was only further dividing the city.

But not everyone agreed with Weiss’ criticism. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the seminary, praised Dinkins, saying that the “harmony of this city comes a great deal from your inspired and vigorous leadership.”

Later in the day, Dinkins issued a statement welcoming the governor’s probe and promising to cooperate fully. He said he is “confident that its conclusions will help answer lingering questions and doubts, and thereby help to improve the current climate.”

The suit alleging a conspiracy is the most detailed account to date of the violence that raged through the streets of Crown Heights. It also claimed that despite a court order directing that all 911 tapes made during the rioting be saved, “approximately 50 tapes were erased” by the police department. And the suit claimed that after Nelson’s arrest, the defendants took steps “to ensure that no further arrests” were made.

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