A Lesson Before Dying

Voice Reporter Flunks NYPD'S Shoot-Don't-Shoot Test

Our instructors review the sequence, pointing out the mistakes in policing that might have proved deadly for the knife-wielding motorist. Apparently, Landis and I had stayed too close to the suspect who swung at us with the knife. "If you're gonna shoot the person, you should really get outta the way— if you feel you're gonna shoot him at close distance," the instructor suggests.

He asks how we felt during the role-play. "I didn't shoot because I was thinking about how best to control the situation," I respond.

"Did you know it was a knife when he pulled it out near the vehicle?"

Sixth sense kicking in: Peter Noel (left) sizes up his target at the NYPD firing range.
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
Sixth sense kicking in: Peter Noel (left) sizes up his target at the NYPD firing range.

"Yes," I reply. It was the wrong answer to a setup question. I should have warned Landis instantly upon seeing the knife, the instructor points out. "You gotta let your partner know," he stresses. Then Landis offers an insight into the mind of a good cop caught in a shoot-don't-shoot dilemma. "I wasn't sure," he explains. "The issue to me was I wasn't sure what it was. But he got close enough so that I could see it."

Landis wasn't as trigger-happy as I thought. He'd deliberated carefully before firing. Like me, he never wanted to kill anybody. "I was concerned that if I'd shot him before, it [the knife] might have been something else," he says. "I waited [to shoot] till I actually saw the blade."According to the instructor, an experienced officer would have yelled at the suspect, "Don't come near me! Stop! Stop! Stop!"

The instructor's words echoed loudly in my ear as we broke up and headed toward a firing range. "We don't teach people how to kill; we teach people how to stop a threat," he said. But in Giuliani Land things don't turn out that way. Like most blacks, I've long suspected that white cops, especially, don't shoot black suspects by the rules. Before injuring or killing suspects, some allegedly have been overheard shouting racist commands such as, "Freeze, nigger! You're dead!" or "Nigger, don't make me have to shoot you!"

I also began to reconstruct possible scenarios that might have led to the shooting of Amadou Diallo and other victims we've lost to "split decisions." They died because cops allegedly mistook an object (a steering-wheel lock, a Three Musketeers bar, keys, a beeper, a cell phone) for a gun or some other deadly weapon.

Along a dusty roadway to the firing range, I suggest to the affable Inspector Michael Collins that the department expand its "sensitivity training" to include people from Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and other mostly black neighborhoods. It is in these areas that residents often are viewed by white cops as permanent suspects.

A current NYPD ad campaign, in which cops are portrayed as gentle, caring role models and big brothers, just ain't cutting it in the 'hood, I told Collins. At least, these white cops must be sensitized to African American street culture in a way that teaches them how to distinguish between a 40-ounce bottle of beer and a gun. Assign rookie cops, I suggest, to the real training grounds— the housing developments, street corners, school-yard hangouts, barber shops, and pool halls. Remind the officers that not every souped-up black SUV with tinted windows is a dope don's chariot. Not every unusual gait by a teenager should be interpreted as a prison-yard swagger, making him a suspect for any unsolved crime.

A working knowledge of neighborhood argot also is important. Consider this: If an officer approaches a group of teenagers, then singles out one of them for questioning, and the teen's response, for example, is, "Why you all in ma grill [face]?" that officer should not perceive this natural reaction as a terroristic threat, resisting arrest, or obstructing governmental administration— three likely charges the teen faces for advocating his civil rights. His refusal to be handcuffed should not be regarded as an invitation to body slam him and crack his head open with a nightstick. In addition, the officer should be able to distinguish between genuine concern on the part of the teen's friends for his safety and a mob wanting to incite a riot.

Inspector Collins listens intently. He passes the word on to Marilyn Mode, the deputy commissioner of public information. The department, she says, already has outreach programs in some neighborhoods where cops bond with kids and role-play certain "choose-to-defuse" scenarios. Mode mentions the stellar working relationship Richard Green's Crown Heights Youth Collective has with officers in several precincts.

I suggest that Commissioner Safir consider busing a group of adults and teens to the NYPD's training academy. The idea would be for them to understand what goes on in a cop's mind when he is confronted with situations in which the suspect looks like them— not like the burly white motorist in the Sacramento Police Department's scenario. It's the least Safir could do, I argue. And if critics like Reverend Al say that's not good enough, the commissioner might respond, in his typically dismissive manner, "These got a lesson before dying."

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