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Jewish World Review March 2, 2000 /25 Adar I, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Was the Diallo ruling fair?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- FROM THE BEGINNING, some people tried to turn the tragic death of Amadou Diallo last year into a racial killing. Four white cops gun down an innocent, unarmed black immigrant in a hail of 41 bullets in the doorway of his own apartment building -- this was the nearly universal description of what took place in a Bronx neighborhood one year ago.

Actors, Democratic politicians and civil-rights leaders led angry protests against the police for months. New York Senate candidate Hillary Clinton called it "murder," (a statement she retracted weeks later when her campaign decided it might seem unlawyerly for her to be thus characterizing actions by defendants who had yet to be convicted of any crime.) Presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore cited Diallo's death as an example of "racial profiling," a practice each man accused the other of being insufficiently opposed to.

Yet, last week, a jury made of four blacks -- including the jury forewoman --and eight whites acquitted the four police officers of any criminal wrongdoing in Diallo's death. The jurors unanimously concluded the death wasn't a case of murder or even criminal negligence by the police officers. What's more, the jurors came to their decision without ever discussing race during their 21 hours of deliberation.

Was the jury's conclusion a terrible miscarriage of justice, an example of the most extreme form of racial insensitivity, as critics have proclaimed in the days since the verdict? Or was it a rebuff to all who would turn a tragic -- indeed lethal -- mistake into a race crime?

If Amadou Diallo had been white, or if the policemen who shot him had been black or Latino, this case would never have become the cause celebre of racial demagogues like Al Sharpton, but the facts would still cry out for some redress. The victim, after all, was perfectly innocent. He was standing outside his own home (albeit, late at night) when a group of men jumped out of a car and approached him aggressively. They identified themselves as police -- one held his badge out in front of him -- and told him to keep his hands in sight. In what was Diallo's fatal mistake, he reached instead into his pocket, pulled out a dark object, and stretched out his arm toward the four men facing him.

One of the policemen shouted "Gun!" while another tripped backward, and all four began shooting. In a matter of seconds, Diallo lay dead with 19 bullet wounds to his body and a black wallet clutched in his hand.

The jury didn't buy the argument that the accused officers should be treated, in the words of the chief prosecutor in the case, "like any other individual who would have rolled up in front of a building, pulled out a gun, and commenced to fire at another individual with the intent to cause their death." This was no drive-by shooting, but one by police officers on duty in a dangerous neighborhood. In 1997, there were 27 homicides in the precinct in which Diallo lived. In 1998, the number had dropped to 13, largely attributed to the presence of the very street-crime unit to which the four officers belonged.

The jury clearly believed the policemen had every reason to fear for their lives when a man they wanted to question refused their orders to keep his hands in sight and went for his pocket instead. And so the jury acquitted the men -- as it should have. But their acquittal does not absolve the officers of their horrible mistake.

Nor does the acquittal of these four men mean the New York Police Department itself should not shoulder some responsibility for the consequences of their mistake. When a police officer makes an error in judgment that results in the death of an innocent party, is it too much to expect that the police department will compensate the dead man's family?

Nothing the New York Police Department can do will ever bring Amadou Diallo back to life -- nor appease the racial demagogues who have seized on his death to attack crime-fighting police practices that have saved literally thousands of lives in the last few years. But a voluntary settlement with Diallo's family would bring some measure of justice to this tragedy.


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