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Ben Ward's Legacy

November 27, 2017

Mayor Bill de Blasio credited him with “changing the assumptions of who can lead” the NYPD.

Police Commissioner Jim O’Neill called him one of the first police commissioners to recognize the importance of community policing.

First Deputy Ben Tucker praised him for having graduated magna cum laude from Brooklyn College and being on the law review of Brooklyn Law School, all while being a cop.

Former John Jay College head Jeremy Travis called him a “criminal justice visionary.”

The four were talking about Benjamin Ward, the NYPD’s first African-American commissioner, during last week’s dedication of a library at the Police Academy in his honor.

Click here to read what the police brass say about NYPD ConfidentialMuch of what they said was even true.

Left unsaid was Ward’s most important legacy: how far the city and the NYPD have come in dissipating racial prejudice since his appointment 33 years ago — notwithstanding the yammering of today’s black activists and white “progressives” with little, if any, historical memory.

Now let’s get real.

Mayor Edward I. Koch appointed Ward in 1984 because, said Koch, Ward was black. No crusader, Koch. He was in political trouble with black New Yorkers after the 1983 death of 25-year-old Michael Stewart in police custody and Michigan Congressman John Conyers’s public hearings on police brutality. Koch couldn’t enter a black church without being booed.

His problem with Ward’s appointment, though, was that the rank-and-file despised him. This stemmed from the fatal shooting of police officer Philip Cardillo inside a Black Muslim mosque in Harlem 12 years before. Ward, then the civilian Deputy Commissioner for Community Affairs, was falsely blamed for ordering the release of 12 Black Muslim suspects before identifying them in order to diffuse a riot raging outside the mosque.

But, according to the department’s secret report on Cardillo’s shooting, which surfaced in 1983, it was not Ward but Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman who gave that order. Reached at Alexander’s department store, where he was then head of security, Seedman acknowledged his role to this reporter. Why had he allowed Ward to twist in the wind for those 11 years? “What good would it have done?” he answered.

The internal report didn’t mention that Seedman had been placed in an untenable position by his cowardly superiors, Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy and Mayor John V. Lindsay. Both had taken a powder and Seedman was unable to reach them for guidance.

With that as background, one might appreciate the pressures Ward faced as the NYPD’s first black commissioner. He was a proud and educated man, equally knowledgeable about the historically black section of Brooklyn called Weeksville where he grew up and of the African Gullah and Geechee culture of the Carolinas that he sometimes cited.

Click here to read the New York Times profile of Leonard LevittHe was rough, gruff and tough. Nor did he hesitate to speak his mind and to do what he wanted to do. Four months into his term, he failed to show up at the scene of the largest mass murder in the city’s history, known as the Palm Sunday massacre. Koch and First Deputy Mayor Stanley Brezenoff played dumb. It turned out Ward was on a three-day bender out of the city.

He so intimidated Internal Affairs Chief Daniel Sullivan that, as Sullivan acknowledged during the Mollen Corruption hearings in 1993, he was afraid to give Ward bad news about police corruption.

Not that Ward countenanced corruption. Following the so-called stun-gun incident in the 106th precinct in Queens, in which cops used a stun gun on a black marijuana dealer, Ward flopped the entire Queens hierarchy, which was white, up through the Chief of Patrol Hamilton Robinson. He played no favorites. Robinson was black.

To clean up the 106, he appointed Ray Kelly, who as police commissioner two decades later referred to Ward as a “mentor.” Kelly did not attend Ward’s library dedication. Spokesman Steve Davis did not respond as to whether Kelly had been invited

Ward also forced the integration of blacks, Hispanic and women into the department’s supervisory ranks, although he came to resent the growing number of Hispanics cops while the number of African-American cops remained static. He said, “In South Africa, they say, ‘Don’t give Zulu white bread,  give them black bread, because if you give Zulu white bread, tomorrow they will want butter too.’” Koch made him apologize.

Click here to read the Washington Post article on NYPD ConfidentialHe called the cops who evicted the emotionally disturbed Eleanor Bumpers from her Bronx apartment “dumb” for not using patience. Yet he defended Stephen Sullivan, the cop who fatally shot her, after the 66-year-old Bumpers drew a ten-inch carving knife on the evicting officers.

Ward also said publicly what many people, black and white, were afraid to — what Ward called “our dirty little secret.” By that he meant that most violent crime in the city was committed not by the police but by blacks against other blacks.

People are still afraid to say it in 2017. Ward may have changed assumptions of who can lead the NYPD, as Mayor de Blasio said. But among many people, black and white, anti-police biases remain stubbornly unchanged.

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