Mayoral front-runner Fernando Ferrer's stumble on whether the killing of Amadou Diallo was a crime came back to haunt him yet again last night at a forum with the other three Democratic candidates on the Upper East Side.
A panelist at the Hunter College gathering asked all the candidates - the former Bronx borough president, Mr. Ferrer; the Manhattan borough president, C. Virginia Fields; the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, and a Brooklyn-Queens congressman, Anthony Weiner - whether the 1999 killing of an unarmed West African immigrant at the hands of police was a crime, and how they would have handled the situation as mayor.
The mere mention of the killing, in which four police officers fired 41 shots at Diallo, mistakenly thinking he was reaching for a gun, sent murmurs through the audience. The Diallo killing has become a thorn in Mr. Ferrer's side ever since he told a gathering of policemen March 15 that the killing was not a crime, and that a fervor in the city at the time had inspired the Bronx district attorney to "over-indict" the officers involved. In 1999, Mr. Ferrer had gone to jail to protest the shooting. After a change of venue, an upstate jury eventually acquitted the officers of any criminal culpability.
"Regardless of the verdict of the jury, the killing of Amadou Diallo was wrong, by any standard," Mr. Ferrer told the audience last night. "It was a product and result of divisive policies set forward and set in motion and articulated by the mayor" - Rudolph Giuliani was mayor at the time - "that you can't have effective policing without racial profiling. I think that is wrong. If I were mayor those policies would not have been put into place in the first instance. Parenthetically, after the jury verdict, I would have instructed the police commissioner to conduct a departmental trial, and I would have further instructed the police commissioner to fire those four officers."
While the answer won Mr. Ferrer some scattered applause, he is still doing damage control. His initial comments, which were widely portrayed as a flip-flop, appear to have driven down his approval ratings among black voters. Then, this week, the Reverend Alford Sharpton, who said he had been inclined to support Mr. Ferrer as he had done in 2001, announced that he would not offer Mr. Ferrer his endorsement because of the recent Diallo remarks. The Ferrer campaign had been hoping for Rev. Sharpton's support to help build a black and Hispanic coalition to win the Democratic nomination.
The three people challenging Mr. Ferrer for the Democratic nomination have lost no time suggesting Mr. Ferrer had been insensitive.
"I have stated this was a crime," Ms. Fields, who has called on Mr. Ferrer to apologize for his earlier remarks, said last night. "I would take every opportunity to reinforce to the city that this will not go unchecked. It will not be drawn out, and I as the mayor would encourage fast action."
Mr. Miller, for his part, said: "Anytime an innocent man is shot 41 times, it is a crime against humanity. That incident was a failure of leadership. I would hope it would never happen if I were mayor. If it did happen, I would take responsibility for my police department creating such a horrendous tragedy and order a complete review of every single policy."
Mr. Weiner, for his part, complained that there was a time constraint in the candidates' discussion of "the tragedy of his loss."
"Any man who is shot 41 times for removing his wallet, and is shot so many times that he has bullet holes on the bottom of his feet, deserves more than a minute exchange," Mr. Weiner said.
Mayor Bloomberg, who did not attend the forum, has avoided the subject, saying the Diallo killing was a tragedy that he did not want to politicize.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg made an overture to the city's minority and impoverished communities by unveiling a $3 million program aimed at reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in New York City. The program makes New York the first city in the country to finance emergency contraception for women who request it.
More than 60% of pregnancies in New York City are unintended, Mr. Bloomberg said at the National Abortion Rights Action League luncheon, and the new initiative would not only reduce the number of abortions in the city, but improve the lives of thousands of New York women who are struggling with unintended pregnancies.
The plan would provide emergency contraception education and outreach programs through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The program is to include one-on-one visits to all primary-care providers in neighborhoods with high rates of unintended pregnancies so they can provide their patients with birth-control options.
Employees of the Health Department will also visit pharmacists in targeted neighborhoods to educate them about emergency contraception and encourage them to stock the FDA-approved "morning-after" pill. Also, the Health and Hospitals Corporation will offer advance prescriptions of the emergency conception pills so women who want the pill will have access to it when they need it, the mayor said.
Mr. Bloomberg's plan also includes a family-planning initiative that would provide public education to those who may not understand the roster of birth-control options available to them. The mayor also said money would be spent to expand a program that brings nurses into the homes of first-time mothers. Right now, the program is based at Central Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens. This year, the program will be expanded into the South Bronx, Mr. Bloomberg said.
"No one is in favor of abortion, but a woman's right to choose is a fundamental right," the mayor told reporters after the announcement.
Mr. Bloomberg, who is running for reelection as a Republican, has never made his stance on abortion a secret and was unapologetic about his beliefs yesterday.
"It is not enough to believe in something," he said. "You have to do something about it."
When the Republican National Convention was in New York last summer, Mr. Bloomberg made it a point to attend a fund-raising event held by Republican abortion-rights advocates. His new proposal, he said, is not focused on abortions, but on helping women avoid unintended pregnancies.
Mr. Bloomberg's leading Republican rival, Thomas Ognibene, said last night: "I am against his program, and it will be an issue that people should make a value judgment on during the election. As far as I am concerned, it is nothing more than a veiled attempt to get abortions paid for by taxpayers. It is a disgrace."
Mr. Ognibene, a former City Council member from Queens, is considered an underdog in the Republican primary but a favorite for the endorsement of the Conservative Party.