The Forgotten, but Consequential, New York City Police Riot of 1992Breaking News
tags: New York City, Police, Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins
At around 11 a.m. on September 16, 1992, Norm Steisel heard a roar from outside his office in City Hall. Peering out the window, he saw thousands of off-duty police officers filling the narrow park that surrounds the building, a grand neoclassical structure that, all of a sudden, had started to feel like the tightest of traps.
Steisel, then first deputy mayor of operations, heard officers chanting, “Dinkins gotta go!” and “The mayor’s on crack.” They carried signs bearing racist cartoon images of Mayor David Dinkins with humongous lips and nose and an Afro, including several calling the city’s first Black mayor a “washroom attendant.”
The officers had a permit to protest, which confined the demonstration to Murray Street, a road perpendicular to City Hall lined with Irish pubs. They were mad that Dinkins was pushing a bill that would change the composition of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the oversight body that examined complaints of police misconduct, from half-cop–half-civilian to all civilian and make it independent of the New York Police Department. The bill was part of a wave of measures proposed by cities across the country in the wake of the shocking, caught-on-tape beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in March 1991 and, just months earlier, the April 1992 acquittal of all four officers in the case.
Dinkins was uptown attending a funeral, which meant that Steisel was the highest-ranking person in the administration inside City Hall. Days later, Steisel talked to Phil Caruso, president of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (which later changed its name to the Police Benevolent Association, or PBA). Caruso, a powerful figure who was respected by the rank and file, tried to explain the officers’ anger.
“‘You don’t treat these guys with respect,’” Steisel recalled Caruso telling him. “‘When you create a Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is going to challenge everything they do, it’s just going to respond to “Black whining.”’”
Steisel remembered Caruso telling him, “‘If you don’t respect them, you’ll never have a safe city again.’”
The day of the protest, Rudy Giuliani was also outside the building with a microphone. Giuliani, a former U.S. Attorney and failed mayoral candidate in 1989, declared, “The reason the morale of the police department of the City of New York is so low is one reason and one reason alone: David Dinkins!” The crowd roared.
“The mayor doesn’t know why the morale of the police department is so low,” Giuliani said. “He blames it on me. He blames it on you. Bullshit!” Giuliani then attacked an anti-corruption commission impaneled by Dinkins, which he said was created “to protect David Dinkins’s political ass.” More cheers rose from the crowd.
The demonstration began to spiral out of control, amplified by officers drinking at the pubs on Murray Street. Thousands more had shown up than were expected. Deputy Mayor Fritz Alexander called the police on the police. Acting Police Commissioner Ray Kelly dispatched a phalanx of officers to City Hall for crowd control.
That was when Steisel started to get scared.
“I was getting concerned they’re gonna storm the building,” Steisel said. “I mean, these fucking guys are crazy.”
This was the beginning of an outburst of violence that, for various reasons, has been all but scrubbed from New York’s historical memory. It not only involved Mayor Dinkins but was a formative experience for two future mayors and the city’s likely next mayor — who back then was a 32-year-old transit-police officer. “It’s almost equivalent to what we saw at the Capitol,” Eric Adams told me recently, referring to the Trump-inspired insurrection on January 6.
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