April 7, 2000
By William Van Auken
While critics of the Police Department blamed disturbances at Patrick Dorismond's funeral on what they described as a provocative deployment of helmeted officers, the city's largest police union has condemned a policy that it says left the majority of cops helmetless under a barrage of bottles and debris.
In the wake of the March 25 street clashes in which 27 of its members were injured, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association is demanding that the NYPD rescind an order depriving street cops of the right to decide for themselves when a helmet is needed.
PBA President Patrick J. Lynch visited the injured cops at Kings County hospital the night after the disturbance outside the Flatbush, Brooklyn church where the funeral for the police shooting victim was held. "These were fairly serious injuries to the head, the eyes; you had broken limbs," he said. "It was a fight for your life."
According to Mr. Lynch, police commanders on the scene ordered officers patrolling the funeral march to leave their helmets in their vehicles and wear their eight-point soft hats. When missiles - including rocks and urine-filled bottles - began to rain down on cops, he said, it was too late to get the helmets.
The PBA leader said that Police Officers on the scene were "absolutely furious" about the order. "If they had been wearing their helmets they would not have been injured," Mr. Lynch said. "They would have been protected and it would have allowed them to do their job, which was protecting people in the crowd."
The PBA charged that the episode illustrated the problem with a policy introduced in November 1998 which took away individual cops' discretion on whether to use the helmets, placing the decision in the hands of field commanders.
Describing the scene on and around Church Ave. as "chaotic," Mr. Lynch said that even if police commanders had decided that it was time for the cops to don their helmets, it would have been impossible to communicate the order to everyone in time.
NYPD spokesman Chief Thomas Fahey said the department has not agreed to change the policy. "The safety of our officers is always uppermost in the minds of the Police Department," he said. "However, on the issue of wearing helmets, it will be decided on a case-by-case basis after careful consideration by the commanding officers."
A Police Department source said that in labor-management talks on the issue, PBA officials have chided members of the NYPD brass, alleging that the genesis of Interim Order 72, which took the decision on headgear away from the cops, was a conversation between George Steinbrenner and Police Commissioner Howard Safir.
Found It Unsightly
According to this account, when Mr. Safir was a guest in the Yankee owner's box during the first game of the 1998 World Series, Mr. Steinbrenner expressed displeasure at seeing cops wearing helmets take the field toward the end of the game as fans threw debris in their direction.
Mr. Safir allegedly responded by asking NYPD commanders to have the cops ditch the helmets for the following game, only to be told that they could not give such an order, because department policy allowed the officers discretion in donning protective gear.
A month later, the new order was promulgated. The PBA filed an improper practice complaint against the policy, arguing that the use of helmets was a safety issue and consequently a mandatory subject of bargaining.
The petition, prepared under the union's former president, James "Doc" Savage, spelled out concerns virtually identical to those raised by the PBA after the Dorismond funeral.
'Too Late to Switch'
The complaint stated: "As a practical matter the very situations that call for an officer to protect him/herself by wearing a helmet, i.e., civil disorders (riots) are by their nature situations that are out of anyone's control. Such situations are usually fluid, with the rioters and the Police Officers in con- stant motion ... If the decision as to whether helmets are to be worn is to be left to the single 'ranking officer on the scene,' it will frequently be impossible for that ranking member to see all of the other officers present, and to assess the constantly changing level of threat they face, and issue orders to wear helmets rapidly enough to prevent injury to the officers."
The petition further charged that "the higher echelons of the department consider the wearing of helmets by Police Officers to be 'provocative' to potential rioters," and therefore a decision to use them is often "delayed until after a group of unprotected officers has been hit with a volley of rocks and bottles." It added, "Since the helmets are normally kept locked in the trunk of the patrol cars ... unless they are immediately authorized to wear their helmets upon their arrival at the scene of a disturbance, as a practical matter their helmets will not be available to them when the 'ranking member on the scene' makes a decision..."
Labor Relations Commissioner James F. Hanley rejected the union's argument, affirming that decisions on the use of equipment were a management prerogative. The Board of Collective Bargaining has yet to rule on the case.
P.D. Proposes Committee
While the NYPD has rejected the PBA's demand for an immediate reversion to the old policy, it has proposed instead the formation of a labor-management committee to study the matter, union officials said.
Given the tense situation confronting cops in the city in the wake of the Dorismond shooting, his members cannot wait, Mr. Lynch said. "In the atmosphere we're in right now, they're going to need those helmets. They absolutely feel that they are in more danger now than they've been in for a long time."
Mr. Lynch said that the confrontation in Flatbush was sparked by "professional agitators," not by the sight of cops with riot gear. "Some people have said that the helmets are for intimidation," he said. "They're not; they're protective gear designed to protect officers from injuries."