Shake the Trees

After the Latest Police Killing of Another Unarmed Black Man, The Feds Need Little Convincing to Intervene in New York

Scores of mournful-eyed people streamed in and out of Marie Dorismond’s three-bedroom apartment in a four-story walk-up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn last Friday. All hugged the inconsolable Haitian immigrant, trying to assure her that the police killing of her unarmed son, Patrick, finally would convince cautious federal prosecutors to seize control of the New York Police Department and file civil rights charges against the officer involved.

"I want to send a message to all mothers in the whole world!" the grieving pediatric nurse said in a hoarse voice while grasping the arms of Al Sharpton and Herbert Daughtry, the two civil rights leaders she had summoned to her side. "Every one of you that used to have a kid sick, coming to Kings County Hospital! Every nurses! Every doctors! Every lawyers! Stand up! This is Mrs. Dorismond from Pediatric D-72. They got my son now!"

They got her son because he said no to drugs. Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old security guard who wanted to be a cop, was shot early last Thursday by detective Anthony Vasquez as the officer and two others were carrying out a "buy-and-bust" drug sting near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. One of the officers approached Dorismond and another man in front of the Wakamba Cocktail Lounge and, in police commissioner Howard Safir's words, "engaged them in a conversation relative to drugs."

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani added that Vasquez, 29, then came to the aid of the officer and his gun discharged. (On Sunday, Giuliani said on the Fox News Channel that Vasquez had been wired, that words between him and Dorismond had been recorded, and that he thought a transcript of the exchange would be available—but his aides quickly backed away from the claim.) Dorismond, who was wounded in the chest, died at St. Clare's Hospital. No drugs or other contraband were found on his body. Police brushed aside witnesses' reports that Vasquez was pistol-whipping Dorismond when the gun went off.

As the killings of unarmed African American men become routine, it is easy for Giuliani to romanticize his ruthless rationales. The mayor said he personally ordered Dorismond's rap sheet unsealed to show that something in Dorismond's background instigated the struggle that led to his death. (As a teenager, Dorismond was arrested for robbery and assault. In 1993 he was arrested for attempted robbery and assault, and in 1996 for criminal possession of a weapon. The '93 and '96 charges were all misdemeanors. In both cases, Dorismond was allowed to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and perform community service. The juvenile case was dropped—and sealed by law.) "I'm sorry," Giuliani told reporters, "police officers are entitled to the benefit of the doubt."

The Dorismond killing came just two weeks after another undercover officer fatally shot Malcolm Ferguson, who also was unarmed, in the Bronx three blocks from where unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo was massacred last year by four white undercover cops. The officers in the Diallo case were acquitted last month, sparking outrage among blacks, Latinos, and some whites.

Although a Manhattan grand jury is investigating the circumstances surrounding the Dorismond shooting, Sharpton expressed no confidence in District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Relations between the preacher and the prosecutor worsened last May after a grand jury ruled that Officer Craig Yokemick, who is white, used justifiable force on October 29, 1998, when he hurled his police radio at Kenneth Banks, fatally injuring him in a chase after an alleged drug deal. Banks fell into a coma and died 10 days later. Morgenthau's office claimed witnesses' accounts differed as to whether the radio struck Banks's head or shoulder, and whether Banks fell as a result of the radio hitting him or because Yokemick jumped on him.

Sharpton told the Dorismond family he had bypassed the Manhattan D.A. and asked Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch for a meeting (because Dorismond had lived in the borough). Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White announced she would monitor the case.

In recent years, the Justice Department has been successful in prosecuting several high-profile police-brutality cases by intervening after local D.A.s refused to present them to grand juries, or failed to secure indictments, or win convictions. Since the Diallo verdict, advocates like Sharpton and Daughtry have been clamoring for officers Sean Carroll, Kenneth Boss, Edward McMellon, and Richard Murphy to be tried for violating Diallo's civil rights. Sharpton even suggested that Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, who is black, threw the case after a racially mixed jury indicated that it had been incompetently presented. A former investigator who worked for the prosecution team agreed. "It was the most incompetent prosecution that I have ever seen," he said.

Some legal watchdogs pointed fingers at Johnnie Cochran, the former lead attorney for the Diallo family's battery of lawyers, who relied on the indictment secured by Johnson and did not call on the Justice Department to take over the case. "The Diallo lawyers were so involved in the protest hype that they forgot their role as lawyers," said a critic of Cochran, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Diallo legal team," he added, "should have learned the lesson of the original Abner Louima legal team."

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