News & Politics

Diallo: A Tragedy, or a Line?


Freddy Ferrer’s Diallo debacle simply won’t die. Wait, what did he say again? Aw, who cares? The important thing is that “Mr. Ferrer is bogged down by the kind of gaffe that has defined other candidates and foiled their campaigns,” as the lead piece of the Times Metro Section told us this morning. The gaffe itself is almost a non-issue now that we can talk about the reaction to the gaffe, Freddy’s futile attempts to make up for it, and the strategic implications of those attempts.

But just for nostalgia’s sake, how about a look at what Freddy actually said? According to one observer of the March 15 Sergeants’ Benevolent Association meeting at which Ferrer made the statement about Diallo, the sequence went like this:

Q: You didn’t answer my question. What is your opinion of the incident, was it a crime or was it a tragic accident?

Ferrer: No, I don’t believe it was a crime. Do I believe there was an attempt in a lot of different places to over-indict? Sure. But once it’s in the criminal justice system . . . people like politicians and people like community leaders really need to stay away from it and let people get their day in court. That was in the criminal justice system and that’s why I believe that it was appropriate for me not to comment on it. Not to make a comment, not to make a statement. DA’s will do what they do, jury’s will do what they do. The important issue for me is that policies matter. What gave rise to that incident, and hear me clearly, what gave rise to that incident was bad policy, bad training, bad decision making. You’ve gotta avoid that at all costs in this city. That’s what gave rise to it.

Cop: Unfortunately that could happen to any cop out there on the street at any time, uniform, plain clothes—anything. I think you’re pointing out some of the problems that did occur, but to just point to only that is just a matter of circumstance. Everything came, it was just like the perfect storm, bad English on the part of the person who was killed—Mr. Diallo—and everything went bad.

Ferrer: You know something, I submitted myself to voluntary arrest in that incident—by the way it made my mother freak out. Because the whole idea of my growing up was to not get in trouble, not get arrested. We had a police commissioner and a mayor then whose policies divided this city and seemed bent on intentionally dividing this city. And yes I know an incident like this can happen on any mayor’s watch and any police commissioners watch, I’m not in the mind of Diallo or those four officers, but I can tell you that what happened is not good, can we all agree on that? <ul

Well, as long as we all agree on that, let’s move to the things we can prevent. We can prevent bad policy from taking place, we can prevent bad decisions from taking place . . . to try to prevent it in the future. And let’s try to do that by bringing police and community together in common cause with each other. I’ve been committed to that throughout my entire public life. I believe that’s the way we break, finally, the back of crime in every corner of this city.


The first two lines—the part about the shooting not being a crime and the remark about over-indicting—are what touched off the furor that Ferrer is now trying to extinguish by saying the remarks were “careless.” But despite Ferrer’s attempts at damage control, he has been slammed for pandering to the police and allegedly switching his position from what he said in 1999.

The full March 15 remarks indicate that while Ferrer did cuddle up to the cops, he also criticized the police department policies and “bad decisions” that led to the shooting. Granted, it was a fairly gentle critique, but it pretty much echoed what Ferrer said in the wake of the Diallo verdict in 2000:

The bigger issue is reform of the Police Department. That still has to happen. And that is all about building a relationship of trust between the community and its Police Department. That, at the end of the day, is what will keep people in the community and police officers safer.

The charge that Ferrer “flip-flopped” is based on the notion that back in 1999, when Ferrer was one of several public officials arrested for an act of civil disobedience protesting the shooting, he called it a “crime.” But I can’t find an article in which Ferrer is quoted referring to the shooting as a “crime” in 1999. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who did call it a “crime” six years ago. Council Speaker Gifford Miller made reference on February 20, 1999—as Freddy did in the recent SBA remarks—to the wider policy issues at play: “We need to begin to very clearly acknowledge that there is a problem larger than the Diallo incident,” Miller is quoted by the Times as saying.

On the day after the shooting, the Times reported that Kyle Waters, a Diallo family lawyer, said, “For him to be sent back to his homeland in Guinea in a box is a horrible tragedy.” Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, who has benefited in the polls from Freddy’s decline, also referred to the shooting as a “tragedy.”

Well, if it’s a tragedy, it’s not a crime, right? That’s what the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association wanted us all to think. At a rally in late March of 1999, cops began carrying signs that read, “It’s a Tragedy, Not a Crime.” That soon became the rallying cry for backers of the four shooters, and was the essence of the case their defense lawyers made when they were tried for Diallo’s death.

It was a very effective slogan, and it apparently still is. Back in ’99, it separated the sentiment that Diallo’s death was deeply unjust from the question of whether someone was criminally responsible for it. Now in the early stages of the 2005 race, it has the people who protested the killing (Al Sharpton, Ferrer, et al.) wrestling over the rhetoric engineered by their opponents. That’s tragic.


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