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“The Savage City” Revisits Notorious Crimes to Reveal Biased Policing
(Photo: Tim Musson / Flickr)

“The Savage City” Revisits Notorious Crimes to Reveal Biased Policing

(Photo: Tim Musson / Flickr)

Probably few of the Americans who heard Martin Luther King preach his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial remember the exact date – August 28,1963 – though perhaps they recall it was a hot day in August. New Yorkers also remember that summer day, but for a slightly different reason. A sexual psychopath raped and slaughtered Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert in a crime so brutal that Wylie was disemboweled and Hoffert was nearly decapitated. The outrage might have been even worse, except that Patricia Tolles, the third roommate in the chic, Upper East Side apartment where the women lived together, missed the killer by a few hours and came home to a scene out of an abatoir.

For seasoned crime writer T.J. English, writing in “The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge,” August 28th, 1963, marked a turning point for New Yorkers. Crimes of all kinds were increasing in frequency; more and more neighborhoods were becoming unsafe, especially after dark, and the police could not contain those problems – because, as English wisely writes, the New York Police Department (NYPD) was one of the most corrupt, brutal and racist law enforcement agencies North of the Mason-Dixon line. But in the wake of what screaming headlines dubbed the “career girls” murder case, New Yorkers had had enough. They wanted justice – and if not justice, then someone to punish.

New York's long night lasted for almost 20 years. English is probably right that the career girls murder case tripped a switch and set off a current of hatred that was poised to flow. In “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion wrote that, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Incredibly, the end may well have begun on the night of April 19, 1989, when a brilliant young woman stockbroker was raped and savagely beaten in Central Park while jogging.

The tabloids had a name for this case, too: “The Central Park jogger,” but this time the name arose largely from another kind of hysteria, which creates the stigma that surrounds a rape victim and in turn suggests the withholding of her name. (Didion's work is again a source of insight: in “Sentimental Journeys, her report on the attacks, she writes that this stigma increases when the race of the perpetrator is different from that of the victim.)

This time, the electorate laid the blame where it belonged: with the incredibly corrupt, race-baiting mayor, Edward I. Koch, who was toppled by a liberal, soft-spoken and gentlemanly African-American named David Dinkins.

Dinkins was also an ex-Marine.

As English opens up the wound, so Sarah Burns seeks to close it in “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding.” Both the career girls murders and the Central Park jogger's rape cases were tainted by a miscarriage of justice that reached right up to the district attorneys themselves, who failed in every lawyer's duty, which is not win convictions, but to see that justice is done.

“The Savage City” covers, roughly, the decade that George Whitmore, an innocent man, languished in prison for the career girls murder case, and hammers home the endemic racism and failures of justice of that era: the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X, the rise of the Black Panther Party, and the explosive Knapp Commission hearings into NYPD corruption. One wonders why English ended his narrative with the release of Whitmore, for if anything, crime grew worse until the time when Burns picks up the gruesome narrative of the jogger case. But, on reflection, such a tale would amount to a recounting of one outrage after another, making for a very thick book indeed. I remember those years very clearly, when we dashed from the front door to a taxi or, even more securely, a radio cab.

Appropriately, English dedicates his book to Whitmore, a mild, not particularly intelligent man who sought to help a policeman catch a rape suspect and wound up charged not just with that rape, but also with the Wylie-Hoffert murders, as well. As English phrases it, “Within the ranks of the NYPD's detective bureau, there was no talent more prized than the ability to make a person confess to a crime.” Whitmore was not subjected to what is known as “police psychology” – this is, brutality – but rather to a relentless, step-by-step inquisition in which detectives planted the words they wanted him to say. It was too late when Whitmore realized his questioners were seeking to elicit a confession; by then, the police had broken him, and the case was handed over to one of the most unforgiving and single-minded district attorneys in Manhattan's history, Frank Hogan.

Whitmore owes his freedom to several people: his pro bono lawyers, the editorial writers of The New York Post, and, not least, the newly elected Brooklyn district attorney, Eugene Gold, who flew two of his investigators to Puerto Rico to interview the woman Whitmore had allegedly raped. From that point on, the entire case against Whitmore began to unravel. And after nearly a decade in prison, Whitmore heard these words from the bench: “Mr. Whitmore, I would like to say to you on behalf of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, I am sorry for what you have had to go through.”

Whitmore could not quite stay out of trouble – he spent nine months in prison for burglary, and he pretty well squandered a fairly generous settlement from New York. But then, a streetwise person would never have allowed himself to be lured into Whitmore's predicament in the first place.

At the same time that Whitmore was on the inside looking out, Wall Street lawyer Whitman Knapp was presiding over the police corruption hearings that bear his name. I remember the hearings well: I was glued to the radio from dawn to dusk, as decades of police corruption unfolded over the airwaves. It was a long time coming – almost a century, actually, from the time that Teddy Roosevelt, in his capacity as New York's Police Commissioner, pounded a beat of his own to ensure that his cops toed the straight and narrow.

Two courageous New York City cops, Frank Serpico and David Durk, tried to work within the system, taking their evidence of corruption to Internal Affairs. They got nowhere, and after exhausting every venue open to them, they finally took their long and squalid story to The New York Times. New York's then-mayor, John V. Lindsay, had been sitting on the police scandal ever since he took office, fearful of rocking the boat at a time of racial tension – or at any rate, that was his excuse. With the publication of one story after another in the pages of the Times, Lindsay ran out of excuses.

It is indeed unfortunate that a crime reporter of English's skill did not develop the consequences of the Knapp Commission hearings in greater depth, because they were probably the most important municipal events of the 1970's, absent the near-bankruptcy of the city of New York in 1975.

Detective story writer Elmore Leonard entitled one of his books “City Primeval.” He did not mean New York, but Detroit, which had a higher proportional murder rate, most likely because of the ready availability of guns – though guns were not hard to get in New York either, and were often obtained from police officers. Washington, DC had a higher crime rate, too, but it was New York that was perceived by the country as a sewer of crime, iniquity, and permissiveness – though there has never been anything permissive about the NYPD, except where its own corruption was concerned.

There is a certain feeling of dissatisfaction on closing “The Savage City”: one wishes that English had gone on with the story, for, if anything, crime spiraled out of control in the years after Whitman was freed and the Knapp Commission handed down its recommendations. It seems as if every outrage in this city primeval is heading straight for that encounter between the Central Park jogger and her assailant. However, on reflection, I think Burns tells a more sensitive narrative than English might have done: her conclusions are penetrating and controversial.

The night of April 19, 1989, was one of outrage in Central Park – which, by this year, had largely been abandoned by all but the most stalwart, foolhardy, or criminal. On April 20, a band of some 30 African-American and Hispanic youths from the projects and walkups north of the park went on a rampage, starting at 9 PM. They beat up joggers, attempted to seize a couple on a tandem bicycle, rolled a drunk, smashed lights and broke car windows along Central Park West. This spree was apparently known as “wilding” in ghetto slang. One thing they did not do was rape and beat to within an inch of her life the woman who had been out jogging; years would pass before the perpetrator – who was serving a life sentence for murder – finally confessed. But the police poured into Central Park, and, in the course of rounding up the rioters, came upon the near-dead body of the jogger, whose survival is a credit to brain surgeons at Metropolitan Hospital. But on the night of April 19, it looked to doctors and police alike as if they would soon have a corpse on their hands.

One thing that did not change in the wake of the Knapp Commission was the esteem in which police officers held those colleagues who could elicit a confession, and on into that April morning, such cops were in high demand. This time, the subject was not a rather slow and naive man, but five youths who the police referred to as ABCDE. Detectives used the same ruse that had been used against Whitmore: the promise that they could go home if they signed a confession. What is more, the cops skillfully played each one against the other four until all five had implicated themselves in the rape.

No one went home. Not for an average of five-plus years, after which they were released on parole. They were still criminals, even though, as in the Whitmore case, there was no forensic evidence to support their guilt and a great deal of conflicting testimony – which the assistant district attorneys deftly elided in trying to make their case – to support their innocence.

Balanced against the skill of career prosecutors Linda Fairstein and the relentlessly punitive Elizabeth Lederer were the lawyers for the defendants, only one of whom was a criminal lawyer – who spent breaks in the proceedings chatting with his friends in the DA's office. The jury seems to have struggled hard to reach a fair verdict, but the prosecutors tied them in knots by concealing crucial forensic evidence – for example, that the track marks in the soil where the rapist had dragged his victim into the bushes were way too narrow for five culprits, or even two. The defense missed this one, as they missed everything else. Then too, the 12 good men and women could scarcely be blamed for anger at the prospect of Yusef Salaam, a purported follower of Islam who turned up in court carrying a Koran, when he was identified as having wielded a length of pipe on the night of April 19.

The Five might never have been cleared had serial rapist Matias Reyes not come to know Korey Wise in jail and developed a case of the guilts. Reyes swore out a confession that it had been he who had raped and beaten the Central Park jogger. Since he stood no chance of parole for his murder conviction, he had nothing to lose; it was probably the only decent act of his wretched life.

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau moved quickly. He requested State Supreme Court Judge Charles Tejada to dismiss the indictments against the five, thereby wiping out their criminal records. On December 19, 2002, Tejada responded: “The motion is granted. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” But Judge Tejada's spiritual cheer notwithstanding, the City has fought bitterly against any compensation for the years that the Central Park Five spent behind bars. They certainly spent more time behind bars than they would have done for rioting or simple assault – but they did, after all, land another jogger in the emergency room, and their “wilding” was, with equal certainly, part of what made New York barely livable for three decades, during which the impenetrable Fox Police Lock was an iconic symbol of urban existence in many New Yorker's homes and businesses.

It was very hard to be a progressive in those years – the habit of using taxis is by now so deeply engrained that I still use them – and I wonder exactly how progressive I would be if the Central Park Five had been awarded substantial compensation; the image of 30 youths pouring through the park on the devil's business may be too vivid for me to feel any generosity of spirit. Then, too, I question Burns' priorities in dedicating her book to the Central Park Five, rather than to the Central Park Jogger. Of greater moment than the dedication, however, is a long chapter of sociologese that strives to exculpate the Five for participating in their rampage through the upper reaches of the park.

Burns departs not only from her good, clear style, but from common sense, for the “wilding” spree was not driven by poverty or racism – which English deploys effectively in accounting for the growth of the Black Power movement – but by sheer antisocial behavior.

I talked about the Central Park jogger case with one of the nation's top younger forensic psychiatrists, James L. Knoll IV at State University of New York Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York. “Wilding,” explained Dr. Knoll, can be understood as collective acting-out by people, usually teens, who would not perpetrate such criminal behavior on their own.” The presumed disciple of Islam, Salaam, is an excellent example. Dr. Knoll explained that wilding – which is thought to be very rare – occurs when a pack mentality develops and spreads through a group like a “contagion,” which allows for a diffusion of responsibility from the individual to the group. “Motive” is a pivotal issue in understanding this case, and I regard it as something of an affront to all New Yorkers, all law-abiding New Yorkers, regardless of their color or accent, to dismiss “wilding” as some sort of youthful sport.

The Five are not the only ones who get an easy ride from Burns. Morgenthau doesn't even get a slap on the wrist for his lack of professional conduct in 1989. It strains one's credulity for Burns to expect us to believe that Morgenthau was so far above the fray that he did not know how Fairstein and Lederer proposed to present their witnesses in court – that is, in such a way as to obscure the forensic evidence from the jury. When Judge Tejada erased the indictments, Morgenthau did acknowledge a degree of culpability with the remark that, “The buck stops here.” Did Morgenthau mean that he did not sign off on his subordinates' strategy, or that he approved it? If Morgenthau was so preoccupied with other matters that he lacked the time to devote to the highest-profile case in his office, he was guilty of gross negligence. And if he gave his imprimatur to Fairstein and Lederer's ploy, he was guilty of much worse. It is simply inconceivable that a career prosecutor of Morgenthau's skill would require a second look to see how Fairstein and Lederer were marking the deck to deceive the jury. The fact that they also deceived the attorneys for the defense underscores the fact that, in America, even in “liberal” New York, you get just as much justice as you can afford.

I opened this article with a seemingly quixotic statement: that the jogger case marked the beginning of the end of New York's crime wave. Rudolph Giuliani (of course) claims the credit, but it was Mayor Dinkins whose appointments of police commissioner and transit police commissioner (subsequently merged with the NYPD) turned the tide, though it took a couple of years for the downturn in the crime rate to become measurable. First of all, Dinkins succeeded in healing the wounds of racial hatred left by Koch. And second, the police began enforcing penalties for “quality of life” crimes like turnstile-jumping in the subways and smoking pot in the street (a practice thought to facilitate dealing but now shown to also be another opportunity to frame innocents.) The thinking is that quality-of-life crimes lead to more serious offenses, and that even a day in jail has a deterrent effect.

I asked Dr. Knoll what he thought about this then-new, aggressive policing technique of nailing people even for nuisance crimes. Dr. Knoll said that there is very little systematic research in this area, but that the anecdotal evidence of which he is aware does tend to show that persons who commit major felonies often have a long history of lesser crimes, escalating on up from “nuisance crimes.” So, even in the absence of substantial research, Dr. Knoll speculated that the policing by the Dinkins administration was probably a sound idea.

Burns is skeptical about this idea, even though Giuliani and Bloomberg have pursued the strategy, and, indeed, retained or rehired Dinkins' commissioners. Certainly the current “stop and frisk” policies of the police have been statistically discriminatory and arguably illegal, contributing to justified hostility toward the police. What seems clear is that police and prosecutorial corruption and deliberate injustice contribute to urban crime. At this writing, New York is regarded as the safest large city in America, despite a recession that is bordering on a depression. Giuliani's thinly veiled racism nearly undid these successes, but Dinkins before him and Bloomberg after him have demonstrated commitment to somewhat greater racial equality in the administration of the criminal justice system.

Nonetheless, it appears that blatant racism in the administration of justice is once again rearing its ugly head – if it ever entirely disappeared. Claims that the NYPD's “stop and frisk” is predicated on racial profiling and targets blacks and Hispanics will go to trial, and seem supported by a recent incident involving black City Councilman Jumaane Williams. Recent stories point to Muslim profiling by the NYPD.

It remains to be seen how long New York will remain the safest large city.