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Officer who rode on racist float dismissed

New York, Oct. 10 - A New York City police officer who rode on a racist float in a Labor Day parade in Broad Channel, Queens, was formally dismissed by Police Commissioner Howard Safir Saturday.

According to a statement issued by Safir, “It is my considered decision that Police Officer Joseph Locurto does not deserve to wear the shield of a New York Police Officer and should, in fact, be dismissed.” The city suspended Locurto and two New York City firefighters without pay on Sept. 11 after they were identified as being among the nine white men on the float in Broad Channel, a predominantly white community in an isolated area of southern Queens. The men wore blackface and Afro-style wigs, threw watermelon and fried chicken into the crowd and mocked the bias murder of a black man in Jasper, Texas.

“Joseph Locurto’s racist behavior set a very poor and reprehensible example which brought shame on the [NYPD],” said Safir. The commissioner’s decision to dismiss Locurto followed a recommendation by Rae D. Koshetz, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of trials. In her ruling, Koshetz said, ““I find this float was designed to mimic and mock a racial group.” She called the officer’s claim of public-spirited speech both disingenuous and self-serving. “By signing this decision, this message will be broadcast clearly and unequivocally: The New York Police Department doesn’t tolerate this kind of behavior,” said Koshetz. Locurto was charged by the department with conduct prejudicial to the force and with knowingly associating with people or organizations that advocate hatred, oppression or prejudice toward a racial or religious group. The charges are not criminal.

During his trial, Locurto was defended by New York Civil Liberties Union lawyers who argued that he was illegally suspended for exercising his free-speech rights. He was off-duty at the time of the parade. New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Norman Siegel, who represented Locurto, said, “Police officers have First Amendment rights, especially off-duty First Amendment rights,” said Siegel. But according to Safir, “A police officer makes a commitment to a higher standard of integrity than is expected of others – both on and off duty.” Locurto, who served on the police force for 4 1/2 years, admitted he was on the float and publicly apologized for it. Last month, the officer filed a federal lawsuit demanding that the NYPD give him his job back.

Rosemarie Maldonado, who presided over a separate administrative trial for firefighters Robert Steiner and Jonathan Walters, has not said when she would issue her recommendation to Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. She set an Oct. 14 date for filing additional papers on the matter. The two men’s trial ended last Wednesday. In their trial, Steiner and Walters testified that they meant to poke fun at their predominantly white community’s racist views when they participated in the float. Steiner said that in retrospect, the float may have promoted integration because it prompted community leaders to meet with the Rev. Al Sharpton. The two firefighters alleged that they would be unable to get a fair trial because of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s strong desire to have them fired. Their attorney said that Giuliani demanded that the city’s fire commissioner fire the two men.

Both said they thought the theme of the float was going to be “Gottizilla,” a parody of Italian-Americans, but learned just prior to the start of the parade that someone had changed the theme. Both testified that the float was a parody mocking the fact that the neighborhood was predominantly white, but by the year 2098, it would most likely be integrated. They said they used stereotypes, such as the blackface and wigs, because that’s the way the community perceived blacks. “This float was not racist,” Steiner said. “It was meant to mimic the community’s image of racism.” Steiner then added that the float might have opened up a line of communication between the community and black leaders because it prompted Sharpton to hold a rally in Broad Channel. “The fact that Mr. Sharpton came down to the community and had some refreshments and some cake – that’s definitely something that would not have happened a month earlier,” Steiner said, referring to Sharpton having lemonade and crumb cake with some community officials. Walters, who portrayed the black man who was dragged to death in Texas, testified that he decided to hold on to the tailgate of the pickup truck serving as the float after a man and woman running alongside it with a video camera urged him to do so.

While he was dragged for about five to 10 seconds, Walters said he yelled: “This is what happened to our brother in Texas. We should not allow this here.” Walters was referring to the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas. Attorney Marvyn Kornber, who represents Steiner, said the woman was an employee at WCBS-TV and had not portrayed the float accurately. He did not identify the woman during the hearing. He said during the lunch break that he did not know whether she was there on assignment or on her own time. Kornberg said the station left out the part where Walters decries Byrd’s death. Sharpton makes surprise appearance Sharpton made a surprise appearance at Locurto’s trial. Sharpton said that Locurto was a “scapegoat in a political game” waged by City Hall. Before testifying on Locurto’s behalf, Sharpton said, “What he did he had the right to do off-duty, as ugly and racist as it is. That’s why I agreed to be the surprise witness.” “I miss my job – suspended without pay is a struggle for my family. I just want to get over this, I know what I did was a mistake – was wrong – and I’m learning, and I just want to go back to work,” said Locurto. Sharpton said that the mayor’s strong actions against Locurto and the two firefighters were motivated by his desire to appease members of the black community who are upset about police response at the Million Youth March on September 5. A clash between police and participants at the rally occurred when police moved in to stop the proceedings after its court-ordered time limit expired. Sharpton also charged that the city allowed the Broad Channel Labor Parade to go on for many years despite charges that there were racist floats in the past.

The mayor’s office responded to Sharpton’s accusations in a memo, saying, “Sharpton has about as much credibility in the Locurto matter as he had in the Tawana Brawley case.”

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