Diallo is a martyr, but the cops aren't murderers

Racism didn't kill the African immigrant, but his death has forced the police and the community to reckon better with one another.

Published March 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Last year, approximately 680 people were murdered in New York, while the New York Police Department sent 11 to oblivion. One of them, tragically and unfortunately, was Amadou Diallo. Diallo died in a hard rain of 41 bullets fired by four police officers while the NYPD was still suffering the shock and disdain provoked by Officer Justin Volpe's sodomizing Abner Louima with a wooden stick in a Brooklyn precinct house.

In the wake of the Louima case, Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed a task force to develop recommendations for improving police-community relations. I was on that task force, which visited precinct houses, talked with cops and spoke with community people. We made recommendations, many of which were put into practice. Then, after the Diallo case, New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir created a board of visitors to the Police Academy to make recommendations that might improve the training and better the quality of the police work. I was appointed to that study group as well.

The result is that I have observed aspiring cops in classrooms, on the shooting range and in role-playing encounters with people inside homes, businesses and on the streets; and I have spoken with veterans and supervisors. Every cop I spoke to about the Diallo case thought the four guys who shot him had essentially screwed up. They unanimously said that it was what is called "a bad shooting," driven by surprise and panic, of the sort that attends work in areas where there are many illegal automatic weapons, on the same streets where cops have died in action.

At the very least I expected a guilty verdict on the charge of reckless endangerment. But no matter how much howling and whining there might be, no matter all of the sanctimonious denouncements, I do not see police officers as bigoted white demons who arrive in so-called minority communities thinking that they are the anointed zoo keepers who must sometimes subdue the animals, and sometimes use deadly force against them. I also have no doubt whatsoever that there are cops who have those attitudes, but attitudes and actions are two very different things.

Those attitudes, when they are bad, create occupational hazards within law enforcement because brutal and dirty cops turn communities against the police. This means that an officer in mortal danger might lose his or her life because hostile community members may refuse to call 911, say "Officer in trouble" and make clear where the rough stuff is going on.

But the average cop already knows how that works, and those in charge try to combat bad attitudes among cynical cops, day by day. How the cynicism and brutality come about in certain cops is as understandable as it is deplorable. All too often, police officers meet people at their very worst -- in family squabbles, under the influence, in the middle of melees. They come to know people when shocking things have been discovered about them, such as the fact that they have been brutalized or their children or their wives; or are guilty of sexually molesting the young; or have murdered their spouses or their parents; or function in worlds of vice so lowdown and dirty that the air around them seems darkened by spiritual coal dust.

In fact, one black cop said to me a few years back that if he weren't black himself, he might be tempted to become a racist, given the terrible things that he witnessed on his job. One of the reasons that didn't happen was that he knew dozens upon dozens of Negroes who were not like those who made life in high crime areas so abominable.

At the NYPD Police Academy, in the wake of the Louima and Diallo cases, there has been new emphasis on giving cops more information about the lives of those they will encounter in blue-collar communities inhabited by blacks and Latinos, so that those who dont know those communities intimately can come to understand them. In one class, for instance, a black female cop asked her students how they would handle a situation in which a woman, outraged that her child was being arrested, stepped into the middle of things. Now one thing you have to understand, she said to them: I'm big, I'm black, I'm a female and I might be very loud. But loud doesn't always mean threatening, she explained.

In another class a black instructor brought a stone-cold street hustler to explain certain things to the recruits. (It turned out that his stone-cold hustler was actually a cop himself.) They role-played "stop and frisk" situations, and got to see how effective verbal judo could be, rather than force.

Some police critics have suggested that the Street Crimes Unit was inadequately trained, if a lone, unarmed man reaching for what turned out to be his wallet resulted in a storm of gunfire. But at the Police Academy, I myself have taken some of the shooting tests -- where you are given an electronic nine millimeter pistol, and must make decisions very quickly as events take place on a film screen. Believe me, all of that stuff goes down much faster than you ever think and it is almost impossible to discern how many rounds you have fired when it seems that there is no other choice.

Interestingly, when Commissioner Safir offered to let some of those most critical of the NYPD try out some of these tests, they almost all declined, having no interest in knowing what kinds of pressures and decisions a cop has to make out there.

There are other things such people aren't interested in. In New York, from 1991 to 1996, 4,840 black people were murdered by civilians while 82 were killed in police shootings; 1136 Hispanics were murdered and 57 lost their lives in police actions; 227 Asians were victims of homicide while two died at the hands of the cops. No professional "voices of the Third World," like Norman Siegel of the New York Chapter of the ACLU, have disputed those numbers. Such people have not been particularly interested in organizing marches and protests against the crimes citizens themselves suffer at the hands of criminals.

If Diallo had been killed while caught in a cross-fire as rival drug dealers or gang bangers opened up on each other and accidentally shot him almost 20 times, he might have gotten a day or two in the press. There would have been no Rev. Al Sharpton, no huge protests, no coverage of his mother and father. But that is not how Diallo died, and how he did die led to certain predictable reactions from police critics.

Even so, I was as surprised as everybody else when the verdict came down in Albany, and the four cops walked. But this was no case of a change of venue leading a faraway jury to acquit cops New Yorkers would have found guilty. Arlene Taylor, the black woman who was the jury foreman, is from the Bronx. And Taylor says to those who don't like the verdict: "Tough." It was not a racial case as far as she, the other three black women and the rest of the jury were concerned. They did not believe that those men started moving toward Diallo with the intention of shooting, wounding or killing him.

In fact Robert Johnson, the black district attorney in the Bronx who brought the charges against the cops, has told his critics that the prosecution didn't emphasize race in the Diallo case because he and his colleagues didn't believe race was relevant to what the cops did wrong. And while disappointed in the verdict, Johnson made the point -- correctly -- that he didn't build his case to satisfy his critics in the streets.

To his credit, Al Sharpton discouraged protesters from violence, saying such action would betray Diallo's memory, and urged them to take the long march to justice. For all his flimflam, voluminous smoke and endless mirrors, Sharpton is a brilliant and complex man. He cut his feet off during the Tawana Brawley hoax, though, and the stumps have not carried him forward very well, especially with the press. But the media is not interested in the better angels of his nature, having ignored one of New York's most important moments of racial healing, sponsored by Sharpton.

Last year he brought together Keith Mondello and Moses Stewart. Mondello was one of the white kids who mobbed and killed Yusef Hawkins, a young black man who came into their neighborhood to look into buying a used car that had been advertised in the newspaper; Stewart was Hawkins' father. Mondello apologized to Stewart for having been one of the people who killed his son. But hardly a whisper was raised about this in the media, which means that news people are more interested in maintaining Sharpton as a purveyor of racial division rather than healing.

But all of these incidents, when looked at more than superficially, force us to reckon with the complexities of our society, the give and take, push and resistance, that mark the movement from murk to clarity. As a result of Diallo's killing, the Street Crimes Unit the four cops were part of has been disbanded and its members dispersed throughout the NYPD. At the Police Academy, the torture of Abner Louima and the death of Amadou Diallo have created the desire to do a much better job, however remarkable the overall performance of the police has been as crime has declined for the last five or six years.

It is too bad that some things come about this way, but there is, quite often, a sacrificial element to the expansion of civilization. Society often cleanses itself in the blood of martyrs. That Diallo could be a martyr without his killers' being murderers is probably too complex a concept for the purveyors of racial division to recognize.

By Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch is a New York essayist, poet and jazz critic.

MORE FROM Stanley Crouch

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Rudy Giuliani