The ongoing debate over police brutality, which has gripped the city like few issues in recent memory, should be a matter of serious concern to the Jewish community, says a key Jewish councilman.
"We want a city that runs well, that people feel is operating in the interests of everybody," says Sheldon Leffler (D-Northern Queens). "Otherwise we have the potential for unrest, for explosion, for striking out."
Leffler, a 21-year veteran, is chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, currently probing the police department’s Street Crimes Unit. Four officers of the controversial unit, expanded under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, gunned down unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in February, sparking weeks of protest.
Leffler hopes the hearings will "address the issue of how we can reduce the use of excessive force by police and gain back the confidence of a large segment of the population that the police are enforcing the law appropriately." The next hearing is set for April 19, with Police Commissioner Howard Safir scheduled to testify.
A graduate of the Yeshivah of Central Queens and member of the Hillcrest Jewish Center, Leffler believes that Jewish commitment to tikkun olam, or mending the world, should stir concern on brutality. But he stops short of encouraging the civil disobedience arrests that took place for three weeks at One Police Plaza, in which some of his fellow Council members, and roughly 100 Jews, have taken part.
"My view is that where we can promote social justice we should … [but] we can do it without being a foot soldier in Al Sharpton’s army," says Leffler.
On the other hand, he says, apathy leaves the issue in the hands of "polarizers."
"I think white public officials should care just as much about this guy getting killed as Sharpton. Here’s a guy [Diallo] who might have conducted himself like my grandfather did, a hard-working guy who came to this country and tried to make his way, and for no good reason whatsoever was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Leffler believes City Hall and the police department have contributed to the problem by failing to implement reforms recommended by his committee, by the mayor’s own task force on police brutality, and by the city’s Human Rights Commission.
"What we need is to initialize sensible reforms recommended by bodies with some authority," he says. Changes in training, monitoring of complaints and the accountability of commanding officers can reduce brutality as well as tragic mistakes, he says.
"These improvements may never eliminate any error, but they can reduce the frequency, and that’s worth striving for," says Leffler, who lives in Hollis Hills and is planning a run for Queens borough president.
The Diallo case also has a political dimension, and many of Leffler’s Democratic colleagues have hammered at the Republican mayor, blaming his zero-tolerance criminal policies for an atmosphere that may encourage police misconduct. Leffler agrees with that contention.
"I think this tough-on-crime approach has been misconstrued by some as a license to excess," he says.
The mayor’s press office did not respond to requests for comment at press time.
Some Jewish activists have wondered why the Public Safety Committee did not hold hearings on police conduct during the Crown Heights riots in 1991, when a Democratic administration was in power.
"It is not within my power as chairman of committee to hold every hearing I think desirable," said Leffler, who became chair in 1990. The hearings are scheduled by the Council speaker, Peter Vallone, and his staff, he said.
One hearing was scheduled shortly after the release of the state-commissioned Girgenti Report on the riots, some two years after the riots.
"Should there have been an earlier involvement? Yes. I thought so and sought it at the time."
Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind is winning praise from an unusual corner: Brooklyn’s gay and lesbian political club.
The Lambda Independent Democrats have applauded Hikind in a statement for his condemnation of recent City Council candidate Rabbi Yehuda Levin as "homophobic," and his vote in support of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act on March 24. The measure, which passed the Assembly by 105-43, adds sexual orientation to categories protected by state laws against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation.
But Hikind, who is planning a run for Brooklyn borough president in 2001, told The Jewish Week he was out of the chamber at the time the vote was taken, and left his voting button in the "yes" position. He later filed a memo for the record with the Assembly declaring that he would have voted against the bill if present, he said.
"I have no intention of supporting that bill, unless someone changes the laws of the Torah," said the Orthodox Hikind.
The Lambda club could not be reached for comment about Hikind’s explanation of his vote.
State Comptroller H. Carl McCallís planned visit to Israel with pension fund managers of other states, intended to promote investment in the Jewish state, seems to have been put on hold.
McCall announced the mission in a Jewish Week interview shortly before last year’s election, saying it was planned for March.
McCall’s spokesman, Steve Greenberg, said he would look into the scheduling of the trip, but did not return subsequent calls.