In February four white New York City policemen-members of the force’s elite undercover street crimes unit-shot and killed Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant and street peddler. Evidently the police thought that Diallo, who reportedly did not respond promptly to police orders, was reaching for a gun, when in fact he was only reaching for his wallet. In any event, he was unarmed and innocent of any crime. In a panicked reaction, possibly in response to their own ricocheting bullets, the police fired forty-one shots, striking Diallo nineteen times. The four officers have been indicted on second-degree murder charges, while both the U.S. Justice Department and the New York State attorney general extended or launched investigations into charges of police department misconduct.

Since the policemen declined to testify before the grand jury, it is still unclear exactly what happened the night of February 4. No other witnesses to the shooting have come forward. Newspaper stories report that the four officers were looking for a rapist thought responsible for more than forty assaults, and that Diallo fit the description of the suspect. All the officers involved were reported to have been utterly distraught in the wake of Diallo’s death.

There was plenty of reason for grief, and, in retrospect, it would have helped if the reaction to the tragic killing among the city’s political actors was as honestly grief-stricken as that of the cops involved. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose extraordinary success in bringing down crime has made him a national political figure, was the first to blunder. Instead of taking the distress of the policemen as an indication that something had gone terribly wrong, the mayor remained aloof and defensive. As anger within the black community built, the mayor dismissed demonstrations over the killing as "silly," and in so doing seemed to dismiss concern about the killing as well. Having ridden into city hall on the failure of Mayor David Dinkins to respond effectively to assaults against members of the city’s Jewish and Asian communities, Giuliani now appeared to turn a deaf ear to the legitimate outrage of African-Americans, a community with whom he has historically had chilly relations. In mishandling a clear case of police overreaction or worse and by seriously misreading the temper of the city in the wake of a series of alleged crimes by police, Giuliani exacerbated an already volatile situation.

First to exploit the mayor’s failure was the Reverend Al Sharpton, perhaps best known for his demogogic role in the Tawana Brawley hoax. Sharpton became an "advisor" to the Diallo family, and organized weeks of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience at police headquarters. The demonstrations soon attracted mainstream political figures, including former mayor Dinkins and Congressman Charles Rangel. Even the Reverend Floyd Flake, a Giuliani supporter and political power broker among the middle-class black population of Queens, criticized the mayor’s handling of the crisis and joined Sharpton’s protest, as did people of all races and religious affiliations. Clearly, Sharpton had tapped into not only public anguish over the shooting but a deeper, widespread feeling of resentment toward Giuliani and the NYPD.

Much of that resentment can be traced to the police department’s remarkably successful but inherently problematic "stop-and-frisk" policy. Under Giuliani’s direction, the police have carried out an aggressive crime-prevention program aimed at taking illegal handguns off the streets. Led by the specially trained officers of the street crimes unit, the police have stopped and frisked literally tens of thousands of New Yorkers on the "reasonable suspicion" that they were carrying guns. This policy has resulted in the confiscation of thousands of weapons and undoubtedly contributed to the astonishing drop in deaths caused by guns. For example, in 1991 when Dinkins was mayor, 1,605 murders were committed with firearms in New York City. Last year, six years into Giuliani’s tenure, that number dropped to 375. The greatest beneficiaries of this drop in violent crime are members of the city’s minority communities, who are concentrated in the most crime-ridden areas of the city.

But such police tactics can pose a threat to constitutional liberties as well as send a seemingly racist message. Since the "stop-and-frisk" program targets high-crime areas, the vast majority of those frisked are the minority residents of those neighborhoods. While it is clear that the return of civil peace and lawfulness in minority communities were welcomed, the police failed when it came to the practice and appearance of evenhandedness. The Giuliani administration did not do enough to calculate the costs of a police presence whose recent rate of twenty-nine frisks for every one arrest was understandably resented. A policing policy that had initially helped turn around the city’s seemingly intractable crime problem-in the beginning the ratio of guns confiscated to frisks implemented was much higher-continued long past the point of usefulness.

In the wake of the Diallo killing, the stop-and-frisk policy has been modified significantly. That is all to the good, and perhaps Sharpton’s demonstrations should get part of the credit. But it would be a mistake to think there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the effort to get guns off the streets and the Diallo tragedy. The use of deadly force by New York police has actually gone down along with the crime rate. Last year there were fewer fatal police shootings than in any year since 1985. In fact, the use of force by the NYPD compares favorably with the record of other police departments in major cities. In other words, the Diallo killing does not appear to be the result of any systematic police brutality or racism.

In that light, the now thoroughly racialized expectations set up by Sharpton and others about the Diallo case is a cause for special concern. Under New York State law, the officers can be found not guilty if they "reasonably" believed that Diallo was going to shoot at them. In other words, given the high-crime neighborhood they were working in, the suspect they thought they were pursuing, and Diallo’s own tragically miscommunicated actions, was it reasonable for the officers to think they were in danger? Even New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, one of the most outspoken critics of the police and mayor, thinks the murder indictments issued by the grand jury are unwarranted.

Not guilty verdicts will probably suit Sharpton’s own brand of divisive racial politics just fine. But if the majority of New Yorkers sees the Diallo tragedy as a racially motivated killing that goes unpunished the city would be set back years. The race politics that now threatens to subsume the Diallo case is not good for those of any color. The revitalization of this nation’s urban centers depends on getting beyond polarizing racial rhetoric to real social progress for all. A vital aspect of such progress remains the battle against crime, especially the crime that disproportionately oppresses the poor.

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Published in the 1999-05-21 issue: View Contents
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