By Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Six weeks after the controversial police shooting of an African immigrant here, the incident is expanding from a local police- brutality case into a nationwide civil rights protest.
It is raising some of the largest concerns about police powers since the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers in 1991.
While the controversy hasn't spawned the social unrest of the King beating, it is drawing national civil rights figures to New York to protest police conduct toward minorities - and galvanizing local activists who haven't marched since the 1960s. "The reason the Diallo incident has sparked such a response is that it is not just an isolated tragedy, but a symptom of a broader problem," says David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law School in Washington. The incident involves four white New York police officers who killed black immigrant Amadou Diallo in a barrage of 41 bullets as he stood in the doorway of his apartment building. The shooting has refocused attention on the way police treat racial minorities on several fronts. Many minority youths complain that they are routinely frisked as they walk down streets. A number of states appear to have used racial profiles in determining what motorists to pull over. Last weekend, President Clinton acknowledged police problems in his weekly radio address and earmarked more money for police training and community relations. At the same time, the Justice Department now confirms it is investigating police departments in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and state troopers in New Jersey for patterns of civil- rights abuses. A spokeswoman says the caseload has increased from a "handful" of cases to "several." Many African-Americans aren't waiting for the results. Take the Rev. Bertha Wright. The last time the pastor felt handcuffs on her wrists was during the civil-rights marches of the 1960s. Now she is joining protesters outside New York's One Police Plaza - and fully expects to get arrested. "We want justice," says Ms. Wright, who leads the St. James African Methodist Episcopal church in Harlem. Wright is part of a daily lunch-hour picket line outside police headquarters. Initially, the marches were composed of local activists, lead by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a controversial figure. Widening protest But the efforts have now started to attract more mainline politicians. This week, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York and former Mayor David Dinkins were put in cuffs. Yesterday, Kweisi Mfume, head of the national NAACP, joined the protests. Their complaints are reaching some ears. On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced he would begin a civil rights investigation into improper police searches of individuals and property. He says he will collect data, interview officials, and talk to people who have been stopped. During his fall campaign, he says, it was a recurring theme of African-American citizens. The civil rights investigations come in the wake of a prolonged crack down on crime that has been spearheaded by the nation's mayors. They have built up street crime units that drive around in unmarked cars looking for potential criminals. They have built war rooms and use sophisticated computer programs to look for crime patterns. And they have added thousands of new police officers. These efforts have contributed to a dramatic reduction in the nation's crime rate - including in minority communities. …