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Len Levitt

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The Bronx Curse and Ramarley Graham

Posted: 09/17/2012 12:55 pm

A crowd of 100 protestors filled the street outside the Bronx's "Hall of Justice" last Thursday at a brief hearing for Richard Haste, the 31-year-old, white narcotics cop who fatally shot Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old African-American, in his apartment last February.

Police said that Ramarley, who was unarmed, was flushing a packet of marijuana down the toilet when Haste shot him, mistakenly believing he had a gun.

It was, by any account, what is known in police parlance as a "bad shooting."

A bad shooting doesn't necessarily mean an officer committed a crime or broke departmental rules. It means there are going to be problems -- big problems if the shooting has racial overtones as this one does.

Moreover, it occurred in the Bronx, where, with its large African-American population, the rubber meets the road in simmering racial resentments that result from bad shootings.

Back in her salad days, New York Times columnist Gail Collins coined the term, "the Bronx curse." What she meant, she explained, was that when bad things occur, they're worse in the Bronx.

The Ramarley Graham shooting is the latest example of this.

Like past bad shootings, Ramarley Graham's death has produced city-wide demonstrations, and all sorts of fanciful rhetoric.

"Richard Haste, you can't hide, we charge you with genocide. NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?" protestors chanted outside the courthouse.

One of them was Ramarley's father, Franclot Graham, who told reporters, "We are going to do what's necessary to continue to fight for justice for Ramarley and all the kids of this city, all the ones that have been killed before. We are trying to save lives and make changes so this won't happen again."

Graham cited the recent police shooting of a Bronx bodega worker, Reynaldo Cuevas, 20, gunned down while fleeing a robbery at his store on Sept. 7. As Cuevas escaped the robbery, he ran into police officer Ramysh Bangali, who, gun drawn, accidentally shot and killed him, police said.

The Daily News quoted a brother of one of the suspected robbers, saying his brother "didn't commit the murder. The cop did."

Now let's get real. Officer Bangali may have accidentally pulled the trigger but it was the robbers who caused Cuevas' death.

Let's also get real about Ramarley Graham.

Last month his 19-year-old twin half-brothers, Hodean and Kadean -- known on the street as the "Gotti twins" -- were sentenced to maximum four-year prison sentences for conspiracy to import and sell guns in Harlem.

At their sentencing, Judge Edward J. McLaughlin seemed to blame the twins, at least in part, for Ramarley's death.

"The acts of your conspiracy, spanning four years, including many shootings and ending just months before his death, is an unavoidable and integral part of the context in which that tragic event occurred and will likely be judged," he said.

Because the twins were acquitted of attempted murder and weapons possession, their father, Franclot Graham, maintained that the charges against them were "retribution" for a civil lawsuit the family had brought against the NYPD.

Meanwhile, another Graham brother, Tyrone, is awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder and weapons possessions.

Maybe some of the "changes" Franclot Graham called for outside officer Haste's court hearing regarding Ramarley might begin with his own parenting.

According to Haste's PBA lawyer Stuart London, a key element of Haste's defense will be his state of mind: whether he believed Ramarley had a gun when he shot him.

According to London, Haste's narcotics unit had been investigating neighborhood drug deals and Haste had been told by others in his unit, including a sergeant, that Ramarley had a gun.

As Haste and other officers from the narcotics unit chased Graham to his home, at least one officer saw Graham carrying a gun in his waistband, London said.

"There is a strong possibility that Ramarley may have discarded it [the gun] as he ran," London added.

Haste's words and actions, said London, showed Haste believed that Ramarley had a gun. He chased Ramarley to his apartment, broke down his door, and, says London, repeatedly told Graham to "show me your hands," and shouted "gun, gun," to back-up officers.

Still, the question remains: Did Haste act too rashly, even recklessly in breaking down Ramarley's apartment door and not waiting for back-up? Whether or not Ramarley had a gun, this was a pot bust, not the pursuit of a killer.

On the other hand, the fact that Haste thought Ramarlee had a gun meant that Haste felt that he and others were in danger. Haste's job as a trained officer was to get guns off the streets and to arrest the people who carried them.

"It's easy to second guess and say he should have waited for the Emergency Service to arrive before he broke into the apartment," London said. "Maybe a more experienced guy would have handled it differently... But do we punish an officer who may have guessed wrong when he said show me your hands, show me your hands? You see a guy with a weapon. What was he supposed to do?"

The Ramarley Graham case is the latest in a number of racially charged Bronx police shootings over the past 30 years. Two of the better known are the killing of Eleanor Bumpers in 1984 and of Amadou Diallo in 1999.

Bumpers, a mentally disturbed, 68-year-old black grandmother who had had failed to pay her rent for five months, was shot and killed by Stephen Sullivan, a white police officer, during an eviction proceeding after she lunged at the police with a 10-inch knife.

Bumpers' family had failed to help her with the rent and inadvertently enflamed the situation by telling her not to open her door to anyone.

Diallo and his family were blameless. An unarmed African immigrant with no criminal record, he was shot dead by four white police officers as he stood alone inside his apartment building's vestibule. The cops fired 41 shots after one of them mistakenly thought he had seen Diallo holding a gun.

The sole explanation for his misjudgment appeared to be that Diallo was a black man, who the cop claimed was making "furtive movements."

A corollary to the Bronx curse is the pejorative term "Bronx juries," which police regard as both anti-police and anti-white.

To combat what they view as reverse prejudice, attorneys for indicted police officers virtually always waive their right to a jury trial, opting instead to have a judge try their cases.

In both the Bumpers and Diallo cases, the officers did this.

Sullivan was acquitted by a white judge who was about to retire and thus, in theory, was free from political pressure.

But when a black, female judge was selected, supposedly at random, to try the Diallo case, the cops moved for a change of venue, saying they could not get a fair trial in the Bronx by either a judge or a jury.

The case was moved to Albany, where top court administrators hand-picked the judge. The four cops were also acquitted.

There is speculation that Haste, too, will waive his right to have a Bronx jury try his case. So far, it is being heard by Acting State Supreme Court Judge Edward Barrett, a veteran white judge, considered fair by both sides.

In the Diallo case, the four indicted cops refused to testify before a grand jury. The result: Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson indicted them on first degree murder charges.

In the Haste case, Haste did testify. The result: Johnson indicted him for the lesser crime of manslaughter.

At last week's the preliminary hearing, London asked for police records, including internal affairs documents and interviews, that he said might show why Haste thought that Ramarley had a weapon.

"It's the classic case: whether his state of mind was reasonable based on information from his team, who told him they saw Ramarley with a gun," London said.

But is that a classic case? Or one where a more experienced officer might have shown restraint? If so, Ramarley Graham might still be alive.

 
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