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OpinionColumnistsLeonard Levitt

When is a riot just a street dust-up?

NYPD vehicles block off the area in Jamaica

NYPD vehicles block off the area in Jamaica Estates, Queens. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

What exactly happened at 10:30 last Monday night at 125th Street and Lexington?

Was it "a near riot" in Harlem as news website DNAinfo.com called it, involving 100 officers from three precincts, housing and transit divisions and helicopters brought in to quell a mob that threw bottles at the cops, three of whom required hospital treatment? Or was it, as NYPD spokesman Steve Davis put it, "a street dispute that resulted in four arrests and lasted all of about 20 minutes?"

The incident, said both DNA and Davis, stemmed from a dispute between two women at a nearby subway station. "When the cops went to arrest/break it up, some of the crowd in the street began to get disorderly," Davis explained. "There is a bottle/can redemption center on the corner and someone started throwing bottles. The cops thought the bottles were coming from the buildings so they called for more assistance. It wasn't really a 'riot'. But with cellphone cameras and Twitter, it was really blown way out of proportion."

NYPD didn't regard the incident as important enough to alert the media. Only DNA reported on it and posted a video.

Quoting the police, the DNA story said the crowd turned hostile after police arrested one of the women, perceiving the other to have been the aggressor. The story quoted Capt. Thomas C. Harnisch, commander of the 25th Precinct, saying officers "were pelted with glass bottles inside the subway and on the street."

A source familiar with the incident said: "The job went on the air as a 10-85, which is of less import than a 10-13, which means a cop is in imminent danger." The source said a helicopter is always on routine traffic patrol and is dispatched to such incidents. The source also called the number of 100 cops sent to the scene "far too high because we don't have the manpower."

As for the video, it is too chaotic to present a clear picture. The scene is filled with the sounds of police sirens. A largely black crowd is pushing up against a group of largely white police officers. Some are taunting and cursing the cops.

Whether a near riot or a street dust up, what the video reveals is that there is plenty of hostility out there directed at police. "It shouldn't necessarily be viewed through the prism of race," says a retired NYPD official. "Sometimes it's youths being youths."

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