McChrystal, who ran the war in Afghanistan for the past year,
insulted the president and the vice president, foolishly confiding his
disdain for everyone in the White House to a freelance reporter working
for Rolling Stone. McChrystal could have been fired for
temporary stupidity, but he was fired for a more important reason—he
failed to understand the subordinate role that uniform plays in
Here at home we face a similar crisis between civilian authority and
the needs and desires of those in uniform. As usual, it is easier for
us to see clearly when the issues are far away. When it comes to
trouble in our own back yard, it gets personal.
Last week Mayor Stephanie Miner decided to deny an award to a
Syracuse police officer, Alp Lluakaci, who had been found by a jury to
have used excessive force while arresting a drug dealer. The head of
the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), Jeff Piedmonte, called Miner’s
action an insult to every police officer. The cops boycotted the awards
ceremony, and are threatening further action.
The reaction from the PBA was predictable. The organization circles
the wagons every time an officer is in trouble. It is an instinct we
can understand: These men and women rely on one another in life
threatening situations. But when someone on the inside points out such
behavior, they get nothing but grief. Witness the treatment of the
female officers who recently won sexual harassment lawsuits against the
Witness the treatment of Officer John Baggett, who reported being
shunned by his comrades after he testified against fellow Officer James
Mullen, the only police officer in memory to be charged and found
guilty of assault committed in the line of duty on Glenwood Avenue.
In that episode, a jury found in 2005 that Mullen had used excessive
force by taking a nightstick to a 12-year-old girl in 1999. The trial
featured one of the PBA’s most shameful moments. Photos broadcast
nationwide showed uniformed officers standing, arms crossed, defiant,
while Danielle Currier, the victim, walked in to give testimony. It was
a shameful moment for all of us, and brought comparisons between
Syracuse and bigoted Birmingham in the 1960s.
Ironically, the award Miner chose to withhold is named for Wallie
Howard, the detective cut down in a South Side parking lot in 1990
during an undercover drug operation. Minority officers set up their own
organization a few years later, naming it CAMP 415, choosing Howard’s
badge number. The leader of CAMP 415 was a sergeant named Frank Fowler,
now Miner’s police chief, and the man in the middle as Miner seeks to
change the culture of the SPD.
For a judge or jury in this community to rule against a police
officer is as common as an earthquake. When it happens, it shouldn’t be
ignored. Miner was right to take note.
Under past administrations there wasn’t much outside pressure on the
police department to behave. Until this year the mayor and corporation
counsel have fought claims of police misconduct so aggressively that
many felt it gave the green light for cops to cross the line. So while
those who wear the uniform have every right to expect support for the
difficult work they do, the civilians we elect to run our city must
ultimately be able to hold their employees, uniformed or not, to
We have a Civilian Review Board that has no teeth. We have an
Internal Affairs Division that is an embarrassment, its failures
exposed in a series of recent court cases. The NAACP is no longer a
force to be reckoned with locally. And we have, to put it mildly, a
pro-law enforcement district attorney and U.S. attorney. The courts are
an avenue of redress only for those who have lawyers and plenty of time
to waste. Where, it is only fair to ask, is the check on police power?
At last we have a mayor who isn’t afraid to say “enough.” Stephanie
Miner isn’t taking a stand against the cops; she’s taking a stand for
the law, and for all of us. No honest cop has anything to fear from a
mayor who holds them to the standard of the oath they swore.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times.