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Report Charges Dinkins Slow to Act in Brooklyn Riot : Unrest: Probe of '91 clashes between Hasidic Jews and blacks faults New York's mayor. The rebuke could deal a serious blow to his reelection hopes.

July 21, 1993|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A comprehensive state report concluded Tuesday that Mayor David N. Dinkins "failed to act in a timely and decisive manner" to protect lives and property during a four-day outbreak of racial violence in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in August, 1991.

The rioting--between Hasidic Jews and blacks in the long-troubled community--was the worst in New York City in more than two decades.

The report faulted the mayor for being too slow to act when presented with a clear crisis and disclosed that almost two years after the rioting, the Dinkins Administration still does not have a plan to coordinate the roles of city agencies during a civil disturbance.

The 600-page report by New York state's director of criminal justice, Richard H. Girgenti, has been sent to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, who is conducting a federal investigation of the rioting.

It also chastised former New York Police Commissioner Lee P. Brown for "inadequate" management during the riots and charged that a "collective failure" by top police officials delayed use of proper tactics to control the disorders. Brown now is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Although the report found no evidence that Dinkins restrained the police from taking aggressive action, it appeared to be a serious blow to the mayor's hopes for reelection to a second term in November.

Dinkins is locked in a close race with former federal prosecutor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whom he barely defeated in the last election. Strategists for Giuliani, the Republican and Liberal Party candidate, said they expect him in the days ahead to argue that the mayor's handling of the Crown Heights riots is the most dramatic example of the "lack of direction" of his Administration.

"I wish I had challenged police accounts earlier," Dinkins said at a news conference after the Girgenti report was issued. ". . . What happened at Crown Heights will never happen again."

Dinkins said he did not have the impression until the third day of the riots--when bottles were hurled at him during a visit to Crown Heights--that the situation could not be contained by the police.

"The larger lesson is, one has to challenge, cross-examine and question," the mayor added somewhat ruefully.

The rioting in Crown Heights started at 8:20 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 19, 1991, when a station wagon driven by a Hasidic driver--part of a procession escorting the Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the world leader of Lubavitcher Judaism--struck and killed a 7-year-old boy, Gavin Cato. Violence erupted immediately. Soon, roving bands of black youths were stoning homes and assaulting residents. Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Hasidic scholar, was stabbed four times and later died.

These events brought to a boil longstanding tensions between blacks and Jews in the 400-block community of 207,000 residents.

"For four days, this central Brooklyn neighborhood was a community under siege, suffering New York City's worst outbreak of racial violence in more than 20 years," the riot report concluded. "Unlike other episodes in recent history, much of the violence during this civil disturbance was targeted against one segment of the community by another."

The investigation, which was ordered by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, was highly critical of the mayor for waiting so long before ordering police to crack down strongly on the rioters. It said that it should have been obvious to Dinkins from reports of advisers at the scene and from newspapers and television that the situation in Crown Heights was extremely serious.

The report said that Howard Rubenstein, a prominent New York public relations executive who advises the mayor and who spoke with Jewish leaders in the community, phoned Dinkins "numerous times" telling him that the situation was out of control. Rubenstein said he first called the mayor during the rioting late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. Dinkins, when interviewed by staff members preparing the report, said he had no recollection of Rubenstein's call.

The report said a log kept by the police desk at City Hall also contained reports of looting and injuries, and of officers retreating when confronted by rioters. It is the responsibility of officers manning the police desk to notify the mayor of serious incidents.

When staff members preparing the report informed Dinkins of the contents of the police desk logs, the mayor said he had no specific recollection of them.

"Critical questions needed to be asked of police officials for the mayor to have met his responsibilities," the report said. " . . . Only when the mayor experienced the actual level of tension and hostility and became a victim of that hostility did he realize the apparent ineffectiveness of the police response in controlling the violence.

"The mayor, as the city's chief executive, did not act in a timely and decisive manner in requiring the Police Department to meet its own stated objectives to protect the lives, safety and property of the residents of Crown Heights and to quickly restore peace and order to the community," it added.

The report further charged that police were too slow in mobilizing. At first, police tried to exercise restraint, and when that tactic failed, the report said, for too long a time officers had no other plan. It also criticized the investigation and prosecution of the youth acquitted of stabbing Rosenbaum to death.

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