Deconstructing Diallo's Death

In the weeks since Amadou Diallo was shot down in a Bronx doorway, he has become an icon of police brutality in New York. His supporters are calling the police who killed him "murderers" and the doorway where he died a "death chamber." And as the protests mount, the Diallo killing has become one of those symbolic events that reveal the dysfunctioning of a democratic society.

The spotlight falls on a mayor whose police strategy appears to sanction unconstitutional searches, targeting of minorities, and excessive force. But the burden is shared by the media, whose role is to report critically on government officials. The key officials are Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir; the media includes the Daily News, Newsday, the New York Post, The New York Times, and the Voice.

After Diallo was shot, the first question the mayor had to ask was, Is anything wrong with this picture? Given that four officers on his vaunted Street Crime Unit (SCU) had fired 41 bullets at an unarmed man, the answer was apparently yes. On February 5, the Post reported that the incident had "stunned" police brass and that Giuliani was "decidedly neutral" in his response. Even the Post's headline ("In Cold Blood") seemed harsh for a newspaper that tends to be pro-police. In one critic's opinion, the message conveyed by the Post was that police brass was ready to hang the individual officers out to dry.

That view is borne out by the Post's February 19 editorial, which argued that "what happened to [Diallo] has never happened before, and will never happen again. It's an aberration." The editorial went on to dismiss any critics who use the incident to portray the police force as racist or systematically flawed.

Unfortunately, the Post's "isolated event" argument not only allows Giuliani to evade responsibility but also obscures patterns of misconduct within the SCU or the police force as a whole. In recent weeks, every other paper in town has published evidence of such patterns.

Perhaps most telling was an article in the Times February 15, "Elite Police Unit's Tactics Bring Arrests, and Fear." The bad news: the SCU frisked about 45,000 people in 1997 and 1998, but only 10,000 of these were arrested— which means almost 80 percent of the suspects were innocent. Times columnist Bob Herbert cited the piece on NY1 February 18, saying, "You have tens of thousands of searches of people, most of them black and Latino . . . for no reason at all. . . . When these things happen year after year after year, then you look at one case [like Diallo's] and you say, this case appears to be part of a pattern. . . . I do not believe that the most benign explanation applies."

Other pieces of the puzzle: On February 6, the Times reported that SCU officers have a reputation as "cowboys" who conduct many unlawful searches and seizures. On February 11, Newsday reported that the SCU has quadrupled in size from about 100 two years ago to 400 today, and that officers receive little training and no direct supervision. The Daily News weighed in on February 14 ("Rudy Ordered His Cops To Hunt and Confront Urban Prey"), and on February 16, Newsday got a retired cop to talk on the record.

His revelation? SCU officers "have fallen for department mythology, which regards them as supercops. They violate the constitution every day. . . . They are rated by the number of guns they bring in and the number of felony arrests they make. They have no parameters anymore."

In the February 23 Village Voice, Wayne Barrett reported that a grand jury was convened in Brooklyn in 1997 to investigate an incident in which two SCU cops fired 24 times at an unarmed black man. After acquitting the cops, that grand jury issued a report calling for more control over the training of, discretion exercised by, and bullets shot by SCU cops.

Of course, Giuliani ignored these suggestions, just as he ignored the recommendations of a task force on police-community relations, which he himself appointed after the Abner Louima attack in 1997. In keeping with the mayor's aversion to criticism and the long free ride he's received in the press, reporters are loath to suggest that his police target suspects on account of race alone. But Post columnist Jack Newfield did just that on February 12, reciting the names of some other innocent people of color killed by aggressive police. Remember Anthony Baez and Eleanor Bumpers?

Meanwhile, Giuliani's supporters have attempted to avoid the allegations of misconduct by setting up a false dichotomy. The choice for city residents is simple, they say: either accept a strong police force, or abandon the city to anarchy. One popular corollary is that "isolated incidents" like the Diallo killing are simply the price we pay in exchange for safe streets. But not everyone buys it. On NY1, Herbert called it "bogus" to justify illegal searches with the goal of public safety.

Then there is the "it's good for them" argument, which holds that an increased police presence benefits minorities the most, because they are most often the victims of crime. See, for example, the Post's February 17 editorial ("The Crime Drop: A Boon to Minorities") and a February 18 column by the Times's John Tierney, recalling the bad old days when officers spent their time chasing jewelry thieves on the Upper East Side. (Pull quote: "When white officers looked the other way, blacks suffered most.")

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