The murder of Amadou Diallo: fearing the police

OXFORD, England. The four white police officers charged with killing Amadou Diallo in the Bronx were acquitted Friday on all counts. Diallo, a black man and an immigrant from Guinea, was standing in the vestibule of his building when the officers confronted him. Believing that Diallo was drawing a weapon, the officers fired on him. They eventually fired 41 times. The trial had been moved from the Bronx to Albany because, as the defense argued, the Bronx was “oversaturated” with media coverage of the shooting. The fact that the Bronx is 38 percent black and Albany only 10 percent black probably came into the defense’s thinking as well.

The officers claimed that they approached Amadou Diallo because he was acting suspiciously and he fit the description of a serial rapist that supposedly was operating in the area. Yet at trial the officers admitted that they were too far away to get a good idea of Diallo’s appearance.

The officers said that they attempted to stop Diallo and talk with him, and it was then, when he ran from them, that they believed he attempted to pull a gun from his pocket. It was a gun that turned out to be a wallet.

The officers said at trial that they fired at Diallo out of fear for their lives, and I think they probably did. The question is whether that fear was justified.

Stripped to its core, the story of Amadou Diallo’s death is about four police officers that feared a man who turned out to be unarmed because it was late, they were in a bad part of town and the man was black. The officers claimed that, though his death was tragic, Diallo was mostly responsible for his own death. They cited how he did not stop when told, did not keep his hands in plain view, and reached for what appeared to be a gun.

The first question though is why did the officers tell him to stop in the first place? Their testimony indicated Diallo was standing on his vestibule, “slinking around.” But that’s all they had to go on.

The description of this serial rapist that they were given was a black man between 5’2″ and 6’2″. That description fits about one in five people in the Bronx. These officers had no probable cause to stop Diallo, but they did anyway. As crime has become an increasingly large problem in the United States, more leeway has been given to police officers in their dealings with suspected criminals and this situation is an outgrowth of that leeway. Police in New York probably stop black men regularly without any reason, but this time and in these circumstances someone got killed.

No matter why or how these officers initiated this interaction, the real reason Diallo is dead is fear. The officers feared that he was armed and a threat, but far more importantly, Diallo feared the police.

And why shouldn’t he have? One remembers the beating of Rodney King and the incident last year where the NYPD sodomized a suspect with a broomstick in an attempt to extract a confession.

This incident only adds to that list. Amadou Diallo had far more right to fear the four plain clothed men approaching him than they did he. If the officers are not responsible for Diallo’s death because they were afraid for their lives then how can they claim that he is responsible for his own death when he was surely just as fearful as they were?

When I was little I used to love to watch TV shows about the police. T.J. Hooker, Hill Street Blues: I thought they were great. I will always remember the squad cars pulling up and on the side of them it said, “to serve and protect.” It looks like these officers got a little caught up in the serving part and forgot that it was average people like Amadou Diallo that they were supposed to protect.