Brutal verdict

Behind the acquittal of four officers is a clear indictment of standard police procedure in Giuliani's New York.

Topics: Crime, Rudy Giuliani,

Shortly after an Albany jury acquitted four New York City police officers of all charges in the shooting death of unarmed immigrant, 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried, for a few minutes, to play the diplomat. He expressed “deep, heartfelt sympathy” for the Diallo family and the officers alike. “I would ask everyone in New York to reflect on the evidence and the facts,” he told a City Hall press conference. “We might be able to grow by that.”

But Giuliani’s own personal growth soon gave way to a barely-concealed sense of vindication. While 150 miles away in Albany the Rev. Al Sharpton was imploring that “not one brick or bottle be thrown,” the mayor took the occasion to lash out at “people who protest against the police, and blame them for every ill in society.”

Giuliani’s sense of vindication is premature. Far from a repudiation of the NYPD’s critics, the the criminal acquittal of those four officers — Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy — contains, paradoxically, a far more sweeping indictment.

Here is why Mayor Giuliani should take little comfort from today’s verdicts. Central to the jury’s decision, it appears, was the testimony of police brutality expert James Fyfe, a former New York police officer, now a professor at Temple University. I’ve spoken with Fyfe often over the years. He is the most precise and acerbic critic of police brutality I know. This time, Fyfe testified — without any witness fee — in the four officers’ defense. Hours before coming down with its acquittals, the jury asked to have Fyfe’s testimony read back to them.

What Fyfe testified — simply but forcefully — is that the officers did not have a criminal intent. Rather, he said, they followed standard police procedure when they asked Diallo to halt, and when — thinking the wallet in his hand might be a gun — they fired 41 times.

And standard procedure — not premeditated brutality by rogue officers — is the real crime in Diallo’s death. Fyfe himself underscored that point the day after his testimony in the New York Times. The Diallos, he said, “were dealt a great wrong and deserve to be compensated” in a civil trial. The problem, he said, was not criminal intent but NYPD policy. Given the officers’ hairtrigger training and their highpowered 16-round weapons, Diallo’s death was “an accident waiting to happen.”

The Diallo case is a mirror image of the last celebrated police case, the trial of four Brooklyn officers in the brutalization of Abner Louima. In Brooklyn, enraged officers systematically raped and beat Louima, a suspect in their custody, and their precinct tried to cover it up.

But in the Diallo case, there was no sadism, no rage, no coverup. Instead, there was just standard operating procedure: plainclothes officers accosting a civilian who might well have mistaken them for gangbangers, firing their guns in confusion and fear at the first mistaken hint that he might be armed, hitting Diallo 19 times.

Around the country, it is not rogue officers but standard operating procedure which has turned police brutality into the civil rights issue of the decade. In that sense, Diallo’s case, not Louima’s, goes to the heart of the matter.

Studies by the U.S. Justice Department and the University of North Carolina have documented that fatal police encounters are likely to begin not with major crime but with a citizen’s casual defiance of an officer on a minor public-order matter. Take, for instance, a traffic stop, which led to the asphyxiation death of Johnny Gammage while in police custody in Pittsburgh in 1995, a case which brought the Justice Department into its most sweeping police-brutality investigation; or intoxication, the condition in which Archie Elliot of Prince George’s County, Maryland was shot 14 times in the back the same year.

Behind the standard operating procedures — and behind these deaths — is a profound debate over policing philosophy.

The plainclothes neighborhood-sweeping squad known as the Street Crimes Unit, to which Boss, Carroll, McMellon and Murphy were assigned, was established as a vehicle for Giuliani’s crime-reduction strategy — a strategy he claims is responsible for a reduction in crime so drastic that the city is now among the safest in the U.S. After being elected in November 1993, Giuliani and his new police chief William Bratton declared that no offence was too small — not begging in doorways, single-joint marijuana sales in public parks, squeegee hustles in traffic — and no offender too low-level to escape police attention.

More than a strategy, their approach has become a law-enforcement faith, variously known as zero-tolerance policing, broken-windows policing, or quality-of-life policing (depending on whether the speaker wants to appear tough, intellectual or socially concerned). It is emulated by police departments from New Orleans to London.

Diallo’s death is the dark side of the zero-tolerance movement — as are New York City’s soaring numbers of police brutality complaints and $25 million annually in out-of-court settlements in brutality cases.

In his press conference after the Diallo verdict, Giuliani inveighed against those who hold “different standards for cops.” Yet for months New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board has been at odds with the NYPD over the small number of legitimate complaints which even rise to disciplinary hearings. It is still the NYPD, not the critics of brutality, which evades an even standard for officers’ behavior.

It’s not too much to say that Diallo’s death can be traced back to the founding document of the zero-tolerance faith, its Sermon on the Mount: a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” written by James Q Wilson, a conservative political scientist, and George Kelling, a criminologist who had studied foot patrols in Newark.

Wilson and Kelling’s central argument was simple, centered on what they called their “broken windows” hypothesis. If a factory or office window is left broken, passers-by will conclude that no-one cares, no-one is in charge — and will soon shatter the other windows as well. Soon that decay will extend to the surrounding street, which will become menacing and hostile. Said Wilson and Kelling, it is the small, seemingly insignificant signs of disorder — graffiti, loitering by the homeless, subway fare-jumping by teenagers — which lay the groundwork for more serious street crime and social decay.

The graffiti artists and fare-jumpers themselves, getting the message that social norms will not be enforced, become likely candidates for more dangerous lawbreaking; while citizens, feeling threatened by homeless beggars and squeegee-men, withdraw from the civic arena. So police, Wilson and Kelling argued, should go back into the business of aggressive order maintenance.

With its vivid central image and its implied rejection of economic or social explanations of crime, the broken windows hypothesis proved instantly appealing to policitians like Giuilani. And it is grounded in a sensible core perception: an environment of physical safety is one important element of any civil society. Few urban dwellers have not raged against the absentee landlord down the block whose crumbling tenement shelters crack dealers in the cellar. Few have not felt some relief when a police officer quietly intervened with a deranged, intoxicated stranger.

The only problem is that on the New York streets, “order maintainence” quickly became a synonym for brutal neighborhood sweeps and generous employment of the truncheon. One of New York City’s first broken-windows success stories, for instance, the cleanup of streets around Grand Central Station, was soon discredited after large-scale beatings of the area’s homeless by a privately-employed goon squad were exposed by the press.

And as the huge gulfs in political perception opened by the Diallo case show, such zero-tolerance strategies brought another unintended consequence: vast erosion of police legitimacy. “The larger concern about zero tolerance,” warned a 1998 study commissioned by the decidedly law-and-order US Congress, “is its long-term effect on people arrested for minor offenses … The effects of an arrest experience over a minor offense may permanently lower police legitimacy, both for the arrested person and their social network of family and friends.”

Indeed, Giuliani himself gave a backhanded acknowlegement of such consequences in his press conference Friday night: “We have already had a great deal of examination regarding police procedures” as a result of Diallo’s shooting: “Relationships with communities. Reaching out to communities. Dealing with people in a more respectful way.”

Neither Guiliani’s assurances, nor the acquittal of the four officers, are likely to bridge the zero-tolerance divide which Diallo’s shooting has turned into a political chasm in New York.

On the law, the jury had it right: Those officers did not set out to kill an unarmed immigrant on the streets. But as a political matter, Al Sharpton, for all of his notorious theatricality, made the case in plain and simple language Friday night. “Any man has the right to expect the police are protecting him, not shooting at him.” The Diallo criminal trial is over, but the Diallo case will haunt the politics of zero-tolerance policing for a long time to come.

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>