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Historic Group of African American Commanders Leads Harlem Precincts

By Murray Weiss | November 19, 2012 7:14am | Updated on November 19, 2012 10:50am
 Capt. Steven Griffith recently took command of the 26th Precinct.
Capt. Steven Griffith recently took command of the 26th Precinct.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

HARLEM — For first time in city history, four precincts covering the heart and soul of Harlem have African American police commanders.

The landmark lineup was completed when transit cop Capt. Steven Griffith recently took charge of West 126th Street's 26th Precinct.

He joined Deputy Inspector Kevin Williams at the 28th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Ruel Stephenson at the 30th, and Inspector Rodney Harrison at the 32nd.

Though many celebrated the historic development as a positive sign of the NYPD's diversity, some department veterans are more cynical.

"Is any of this all an accident?" asked one black police official, who asked for anonymity. "Or is it a reaction to the department's problems over stop and frisk and other community issues?"

"Every decision is measured and there are calculated reasons for them, including politics, perceptions and pressure."

Whatever the reason, the development is long overdue, some observers said.

“It says a lot about how the department has grown in its diversity over the years. I wish we could have done this years ago,” said a former NYPD deputy commissioner who served through the 1980s and is white.

“Twenty years ago, it could never happen, because of the ...lack of diversification and minority representation, and this throws that all out,” the former official added.

“Obviously these are qualified people and, finally, there are enough African Americans in the department for this to happen, and that is terrific."

Former Mayor Ed Koch, who appointed the city’s first black commissioner, Benjamin Ward, in 1984, agreed.

“It is terrific that the force has now probably doubled in terms of minorities, which gives the commissioner the authority to select captains and above in larger numbers,” he continued.

“There is no question you want to expand the number of African Americans in leadership positions, and no question black communities will respond with a greater sense of security to a black commanding officer than to a white one.”

Koch said the time will come when race may no longer matter, but that “is not the case now.”

Tim Pearson, a recently retired black NYPD Inspector and the vice president of the New York chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, agreed that the development was “positive, overall.”

“It is a positive that the people are getting commanders who look like their communities," he said. 

“We are striving forward. The diversity is spreading out. The people were demanding this for years and now they are getting it.”

Pearson said the commanders are sensitive to the community needs and serve as role models to kids who grow up there “that they can achieve the same things.”

But another retired black police official said the department would truly be diversified when black commanders were given positions atop operational divisions and precinct commands in prestigious Manhattan South.

“One thing Commissioner Kelly has not done, there has never been a black precinct commander below 59th Street,” he said.

“That is where the business people are, the crème de la crème, so to speak, and when he has done that, he will have come full circle.”

John Pritchard, an African American who broke numerous law enforcement ceilings for blacks, including becoming the NYPD's First Deputy Commissioner in 1992 under Ray Kelly, was even more guarded about the news.

“There was a time when I would have cheered if the commanding officers of those precincts were all black,” said Pritchard, who also served as a top official in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and as Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General.

“I don’t think it's bad,” he continued. “But I would have to know if there were politics involved. If it was intentional because of race then it is a bad thing, and it just sets back what they should really be trying to achieve.”

 “I would have hoped we were past that in New York.”

The NYPD failed to return a request for comment to discuss the historic lineup.

But it should be noted that last month Kelly also transferred Capt. Fausto Pichardo, a young supervisor of Dominican descent, to the 33rd Precinct in Washington Heights, which has a large Dominican population.

State Sen. Eric Adams, (D-Brooklyn), a former NYPD captain and former head of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, had mixed emotions.

“It is a plus and a minus,” he said. “On first view, one would say, ‘Hurrah!’

“But when you look at it closely, it sends another message that we have always been pushed to ethnic policing only.

“It’s good to have commanders who reflect the community he or she polices, but proper policing is what counts, regardless of the ethnicity or racial make-up of the commander.”

Adams agreed about the lack of black commanders in prestigious precinct commands. “You have not arrived until your are a commander in Manhattan South,” he said.

Thomas Reppetto, an NYPD expert and author, said the first Harlem black commander was Lloyd Sealy, who was sent to the 28th Precinct in the mid-1960s following deadly Harlem riots.

“It does not look good when you have to wait for a riot to do something like that,” he said.