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.”)

The net effect of this rhetoric has been to keep the heat off Giuliani, even as critics clamor to put it back on. As Times columnist Clyde Haberman told NY1, “The mayor has to take some responsibility in this whole general malaise.” Jesse Jackson ratcheted up the charge at City Hall the next day, saying, “There is a tremendous burden upon Mr. Giuliani . . . for having helped set a climate that seems to glorify police misbehavior.”

While Giuliani continues to duck the issue and test the waters for his Senate race, three Diallo angles beg for press attention: the mayor’s botched PR in the wake of the shooting, his lack of empathy for outraged blacks, and his manipulation of the flow of information on related issues.

Newsday touched on the PR issue in a February 6 story predicting trouble for Giuliani, because he failed to meet with community leaders the day after the shooting. On February 10, Newsday‘s Leonard Levitt and Robert Polner reported that Safir was attending a law enforcement conference in Los Angeles while the Diallo debate raged in New York.

Some reporters feel (but have not reported) the mayor is stonewalling on the Diallo case, refusing to acknowledge a systemwide disorder. Even as he tells the press, “We have to wait until we see the facts,” he and Safir have proposed a series of minuscule policy changes, such as retraining SCU officers and eliminating the rule that allows officers 48 hours of silence after an incident. In a more aggressive move, they launched the practice of seizing the cars of drunk drivers, as if to say, I’ll tell you what’s constitutional.

The main reason the mayor can’t talk about Diallo is that he can’t talk to black people, period. In a January 26 Voice story called “Rudy’s Milky Way,” Barrett found that most of the city’s black leaders believe the mayor either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the problems of black New Yorkers. While many of Giuliani’s policies impact negatively on blacks, Barrett wrote, the Times “has yet to examine Giuliani’s anti-black underside in any comprehensive or ongoing fashion.”

Perhaps the Times will be a little more forceful on the race issue, post-Diallo. On February 11, the day after Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields called a press conference criticizing the mayor, the Times ran a front-page story by Dan Barry, suggesting the mayor was flubbing the Diallo incident because of his “failure to cultivate a trusting relationship with most of the city’s black leaders.”

The next day, a Times editorial gently criticized the mayor’s reaction to Diallo, but never used the “race” word directly. Last Sunday, a Week in Review piece on police brutality trotted around the targeting of blacks and Latinos, but used the word “racist” only once and seemed to suggest that racial profiling only bothers minorities and civil libertarians.

Jim Dwyer of the Daily News finds this troubling. He says that while race “was used to explain too much in the past, now it’s not being used to explain anything.” Why? It’s an era when some journalists believe that to be fair, they must be color-blind. But Dwyer says that kind of thinking is a delusion, “when only blacks and Latinos are stopped and frisked and when only blacks and Latinos are shot by cops.”

The final missing story involves the mayor’s tight control of information about the SCU. This is an administration that loves to release good news, usually packaged in the form of statistics and usually trumpeting its success at lowering the crime rate.

But Giuliani’s police department is low on bad-news stats. For example, at a news conference last week, reporters asked for a racial breakdown of the 400 or so cops in the SCU, which is believed to be 90 percent white. Safir replied he did not have the numbers. “It’s a volunteer organization,” he said. “We have not taken a census.”

Just last fall, Safir was spouting stats on the SCU to the Daily News‘s Alice McQuillan, who wrote a glowing story from the backseat of a cop car (“High-Powered Cops Target Guns,” October 11). She reported that the SCU officers do their job “remarkably well” and sustain a very low number of civilian complaints— just 41 for all 18,000 frisks in 1997.

Indeed, Safir was feeling so proud of his white boys, he told McQuillan, “I wish I could bottle their enthusiasm and make everyone take a drink of it.”