Forum Cites Lack Of Diversity In Police Forces

Ruth Hassell-Thompson

June 29, 2008

MOUNT VERNON - A community forum yesterday generated calls for a "crisis intervention" in response to local police forces' lack of diversity and recent incidents of excessive force.

About 200 people attended the Detective Christopher A. Ridley Law Enforcement Community Relations Forum yesterday at Grace Baptist Church. The event was named after Ridley, a Mount Vernon police officer mistakenly shot to death in White Plains by four Westchester county police officers during Ridley's intervention in a Jan. 25 street fight.

Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, District Attorney Janet DiFiore and other county and local elected and police officials from Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, White Plains and Yonkers sat on the panel.

They answered questions about what policies the county's largest police forces can adopt to increase police diversity and sensitivity to prevent incidents like the Ridley shooting or the body-slamming of Irma Marquez last year.

On Friday federal prosecutors charged Yonkers Police Officer Wayne Simoes with criminally violating Marquez's civil rights, after DiFiore's office prosecuted a case against Marquez without finding fault with Simoes' actions.

The Rev. Darin Moore of the United Black Clergy of Westchester began the forum by discussing the results of a national poll of black Americans released last week indicating that many of them feared or distrusted the police.

Moore co-moderated the forum with Grace Baptist's senior pastor, the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson; the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network; and state Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Mount Vernon. Audience members wrote their questions on cards that were then handed to the moderators, who asked panelists questions.

Richardson said racial diversity in local police forces is critical to reducing community distrust and incidents like those involving Ridley and Marquez.

"I serve on the board of PepsiCo, and we can force the people who are hiring people to reflect the community we sell to," Richardson said. "If 24 percent of (Mount Vernon) police officers are black and 50 percent of the city is black, that is a crisis. There has to be a crisis intervention."

The panelists described their police departments' efforts to diversify, and then panelists turned their attention to the district attorney's role in providing evidence and advice to grand juries.

In her opening statements, DiFiore said that a district attorney cannot determine outcomes of grand jury decisions and that she would not criticize a grand jury's decision not to indict the four Westchester county police officers who shot Ridley.

Sharpton then questioned DiFiore's ability to investigate local police and her role in deciding what evidence is given to grand juries to review.

"In light of the arrest in Yonkers by federal prosecutors ... what can you say to the community to relieve them of the idea that a local district attorney cannot investigate a local police department?" asked Sharpton, who in recent weeks has come under federal scrutiny for his organization's income and tax declarations.

DiFiore said she would not hesitate to prosecute a police officer, and she described her response to her office's handling of the Marquez case.

"There were grave errors in judgment in that case," DiFiore said. "Lawyers have been disciplined and removed, and training has been introduced for all (prosecutors) from top to bottom."

Hassell-Thompson asked DiFiore to release a report of her disciplinary findings in the Marquez case, and Moore asked DiFiore to take the lead in investigating local police departments in matters of misconduct.

Westchester County Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Belfiore said his department already adopted 14 of 63 recommendations of a committee formed after the Ridley shooting.

Belfiore said the adopted recommendations include expanded training in the use of deadly force and confrontation role-playing that also requires officers to play the roles of victims or suspects.

After the forum, Stanley Ridley, Christopher Ridley's father, called the event a good first step. He criticized The Journal News for what he considered reporting errors about his son, and he said that bad policing is like a faulty product recalled by its manufacturer.

"We have to have a recall on law enforcement," said Stanley Ridley. "There (is) nothing wrong with that. They do it in every company."

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore said in her opening statement she would not criticize a grand jury's decision not to indict the four Westchester county police officers who shot off-duty Police Officer Christopher A. Ridley.