Officers Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy shot forty-one bullets into Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. Forty-one is a large number, especially if it is used to denote an amount of hot, lethal, lead. Yet only nineteen of these bullets hit their mark, a fairly stationary one at that. That means that fewer than five of each of these officer’s ten or so shots were successful hits.
Had only a single bullet struck Mr. Diallo, it would have been a terrible tragedy, although possibly it would have ended in less horrifying results. However, had this been the fortunate case, the reality is that it would have indicated the officers to be even more poorly trained than this incident has shown them to be.
A handgun is a terrible weapon. Yet it is simultaneously fairly difficult to operate. The shooting death of Diallo illustrates both points: the first by the fact that, once the smoke cleared, Diallo died before anything could be done to save him; the second by the fact that four trained policemen had less than fifty percent accuracy with their trusty side arms. For both of these reasons, using one’s weapon is officially labeled by the police as “deadly force,” to be used only when lives are perceived to be in immediate danger. Despite what one may see on television, it is not possible to shoot with the intention of, perhaps, only hitting an assailant’s right shoulder, thereby incapacitating him.
The only way to guarantee even a reasonable degree of success is to aim at the largest, most stationary part of a person’s body, which happens to hold many things that don’t react well to bullets. As just illustrated, it is possible for five shots to be fired without a single one hitting their target, and for this reason handgun training teaches to shoot until the target is down or until one’s clip is empty.
It is unfortunate that the outcry over Diallo’s death seems to imply that one or two bullets would have somehow been acceptable, and that forty-one bullets, in comparison, is a clear case of police over-zealousness and brutality. Once the decision to shoot was made, the police were doing just as they were (correctly) trained to do. In recreating the scene, one must note that, from four handguns, the forty rounds would have been fired very quickly, not in a leisurely or sadistic “let’s give him some more while he’s down” manner.
It is this initial decision to shoot that should be contested, since, once the decision was made, the results were inevitable. It is this initial decision that was scrutinized, and finally declared un-criminal, in the courtroom.
There is little doubt that Carroll, McMellon, Boss, Murphy considered, for a fatal split-second, their lives to be in danger. Were they prejudiced against Diallo because of the color of his skin? Most likely. Would they have reached the same conclusions if their suspect had been white? Probably not. But the officers reacted out of instinct, and it was this instinct that was affected by their prejudice, not their subsequent action. Can a man be charged with murder when he believes he is protected his very life and limb, even if this belief is colored by prejudice? I believe not.
Many people shout for justice. Justice, in the most immediate sense, has been served. The accused have been brought to trial, and have been acquitted by a jury of their peers. What people really want, I suspect, is for someone, or something, to be held accountable. Yet the real source of accountability is far more difficult to identify, and especially to combat, than a straightforward label of “police brutality.” Diallo died because we live in an unequal and violent society. If the four officers lived in a place where people of color were not so frequently identified with crime, they would never have developed the prejudices necessary to carry out their fateful actions. If they did not live in a country where every subject, “suspicious” or not, white or black, could use a gun against them, they would never have felt threatened; the need for deadly force would not have even been considered.
On Tuesday, I will not be wearing black to call for justice. I will be wearing black in memory of one more innocent man, cut down in the prime of life by the cruelties of the world we have made for ourselves.