The latest killing of an NYPD officer has renewed criticism by some in law enforcement about the way certain violent defendants are diverted from prison to take part in drug treatment programs.

Officials Wednesday disclosed that Tyrone Howard, 30, suspected of killing Officer Randolph Holder, 33, on Tuesday night was put in a drug-treatment program earlier this year as part of his plea in a large East Harlem drug investigation.

"If there ever was a candidate not to be diverted it would be this guy. He is the poster boy for not being diverted," Police Commissioner William Bratton told reporters Wednesday, alluding to Howard's rap sheet, which investigators said had 28 arrests since age 13, including 23 as an adult.

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Chief William Aubry, head of Manhattan detectives, told reporters that Howard was believed to have carried out a gang shooting Sept. 1, some 10 months after he was placed in a drug diversion program. Cops had searched for Howard on 10 occasions through Oct. 16 but couldn't find him, Aubry said.

Wednesday night Bratton visited officers at the 23rd Precinct in East Harlem and said the Sept. 1 incident involved several shots fired. Bratton has previously criticized the use of drug treatment in gun cases.

But Manhattan State Supreme Court Judge Edward McLaughlin, who allowed Howard to enter a drug program, defended his decision Wednesday. He said the Manhattan district attorney's office never presented him with evidence that Howard had a violent past.

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"You don't get a crystal ball when you get the robe," McLaughlin said in a telephone interview. "You have to make independent decisions as best as you can . . . I made my decision and stand by it."

The case the judge sentenced Howard on was a nonviolent drug conspiracy, and Howard seemed ready to get off PCP, McLaughlin said.

In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said Howard was part of a drug ring and that his office had opposed defense requests for drug treatment.

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State court system spokesman David Bookstaver backed McLaughlin's explanation and indicated that the issue about drug diversion was something of a red herring. Howard had made $35,000 bail in the drug case and would have been on the street awaiting trial in October if he hadn't pleaded and taken diversion, Bookstaver said.

With Maria Alvarez