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Feud between cops, a church

July 8, 1996

The latest skirmish between the predominantly white 103rd precinct cops and the all black Universal Calvary Church occurred Saturday. On the surface, the incident appears minor: the threatening of a bus driver and the theft of his briefcase by parishioners.

But cops at the 103 grumble that the incident reflects how the police department's and Queens district attorney's kid-glove handling of the church has encouraged its parishioners to flaunt the law.

Last summer the church, at 109-20 Sutphin Blvd. in South Jamaica, was the scene of a mini-riot that led to the arrests of seven congregants. Six cops and a score of congregants were hurt.

The melee was precipitated when a retired detective, carrying a licensed gun, interrupted a church service to confront his estranged wife. A confidential police report blamed the incident on the first three arriving officers, who it said used "poor judgment in attempting to effect an arrest," but the report omitted that the parishioners had stolen the retired detective's gun and injured one of the three cops, Det. Joann O'Toole, while trying to steal her gun.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown dismissed charges against the seven church members while pursuing a year-long investigation of the three cops. Last month, he announced he wouldn't bring charges against them. The day before, the church filed a $900 million suit against the city and the NYPD, charging police brutality.

After the incident, the police department designated the church a "sensitive location." Such a designation, like that of the Harlem mosque where a police officer was slain 25 years ago, gives it an "exalted" status, requiring cops to obey special rules. Before the police can enter the church, a sergeant must be notifed or on the scene.

In May, police responding to a 911 call about a stolen tour bus discovered parishioners boarding it outside the church. The bus, from the Adirondack Trailways Company of Kingston, N.Y., had been repeatedly stolen from its storage garage in Hoboken, N.J.

Police arrested the driver, George Wilson, who had outstanding federal warrants in Virginia and in L.I. on unrelated charges, and charged him with grand larceny. The church's pastor, Emanuel Osei-Acheampong, acknowledged he'd hired Wilson to drive parishioners to a church outing but denied knowing the bus was stolen. The pastor had dealt only with Wilson and not the bus company.

According to a confidential police report, Sgt. Calum Scott told Acheampong that if the bus company was at fault he would "try to accommodate the parishioners in every way possible to ensure they would have transportation to their outing and would even attempt to get a licensed bus driver from the company to deliver them . . . "

Printable versionAcheampong then called the bus company. "He actually wanted us to replace it with another bus," said Adirondack's Vice President Tom Donohue.

Brown's office later reduced the grand larceny charge against Wilson. No charges were brought against any church member. "There is no indication they knew the bus was stolen," Brown said.

Saturday, police were called to the church again. The call was made by Nathan Blaustein, a driver for the Paradise bus company, one of whose buses the church had chartered to take 49 parishioners to Long Island. Blaustein fled the bus after an argument started because seven more people than federal law permits boarded it and he refused to drive them.

According to police reports, a fight then broke out. Parishoners threatened Blaustein and one stole his briefcase and fled into the church. "Eventually, a different driver drove 49 people on the bus to the destination and the pastor agreed that the seven other people follow in a private van," the report said.

Although Duty Captain Mike Higginson directed a complaint report be taken for Blaustein's stolen briefcase, he did not permit cops inside the church to retrieve it.

No respect. A week after Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced his Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect Committee, the Guardians Association of African-American police officers has called him on it.

Safir announced his committee the day London-based Amnesty International issued a report charging the police regularly knock around New Yorkers, especially poor blacks and Hispanics.

But after a two-hour meeting with top police officials, which Safir attended for 20 minutes, the Guardians wrote Safir of several concerns, including no input from street level cops; no definition of what constitutes disrespect; no specified sanctions for non-compliance; and no commitment of staff, including the fact that of the 49 members of the first deputy commissioner's inspections unit to supervise the program, only two are black.

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Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com

© 1996 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.