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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2000 /19 Adar 1, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Amadou Diallo and me

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE TRAGIC SHOOTING of Amadou Diallo, for which four New York policemen are currently on trial, has a personal resonance for me. Many years ago, at about the same time of night -- around midnight -- I came within a heartbeat of shooting someone who was also acting suspiciously and seemed to pose a threat to me.

I was a young Marine on guard duty that night, in an ammunition dump out in the boondocks at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Nobody else was supposed to be out there and the next nearest guard was a mile away. Yet I could hear the soft sound of someone trying to sneak up toward me from behind an ammunition shed.

When he turned the corner and I said "Halt!" he froze in his tracks. Had he made a false move, like Amadou Diallo, I would have filled him full of lead.

My mysterious visitor turned out to be the sergeant of the guard, sneaking up on me to see if I were asleep on duty, for which I could have been court-martialed. Nobody tried that again.

In cases involving police shootings, some people are quick to jump to conclusions, even when they are completely ignorant of guns and have never faced the dangerous situations faced by the police.

In the Diallo case, it is hard to think of a single thing that the cops should have done differently -- or that I would have done differently in their shoes. There are some things that Amadou Diallo should have done differently, such as not run away from the police and then turn around and pull something out of his jacket to point toward them in a dimly lit hallway. What he held out toward them was his wallet. But they discovered that only after the shooting was over and he was dead.

People who know nothing about guns are quick to exclaim at how many bullets are fired in police shooting cases. To ask why you need to shoot somebody so many times is a legitimate question from someone seeking knowledge. But it is arrogant ignorance from someone convinced that he knows something is wrong.

Pistol shooting can be very inaccurate, especially in stressful, life-and-death situations. In the Diallo case, more than half the shots missed. In other cases, several times as many shots have missed as hit.

Often you have no way of knowing whether you have hit or missed until after the other person goes down -- and even then, you can't be sure that he is unable to fire back.

Some of the hopelessly unrealistic questions asked by the prosecutor were obviously meant to exploit the jurors' ignorance. "Did you see any muzzle flash coming from Mr. Diallo's direction?" If cops are supposed to wait until they see a muzzle flash before they fire, we are going to see a lot more policemen's funerals. However, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "The number of dead policemen is of no interest to liberals."

"Did you shoot at Mr. Diallo's legs?" was another prosecution question. Sharpshooting like this might be tried in the peace and serenity of a pistol range, but hardly in a situation where your own life is on the line, when you just fire in his direction and hope to hit something.

Yet another prosecution ploy that appeals to ignorance was asking witnesses how many seconds the shooting went on and citing expert testimony that guns like those carried by the police can be emptied in five seconds of shooting.

Studies have shown that most people have no conception of how long a second is. The seconds these witnesses were talking about are unlikely to have any relationship to the seconds actually measured by experts when test-firing weapons.

Nobody in his right mind stands in front of someone with a gun for five consecutive seconds on the clock. You do what the cops did -- fire a burst and then jump back out of the line of fire, while someone else fires another burst and jumps back.

Much has been made of a pause in the shooting described by witnesses. With cops firing and jumping back out of the line of fire, there was probably more than one pause from any given policeman, even if the gunfire from other policemen made the shooting seem continuous for a while. If there was a moment when they were all not shooting, that would have been a pause that witnesses could have noticed.

The insinuation from all this talk about a pause is that the cops fired continuously, had time to see that Amadou Diallo was helpless and yet wantonly resumed shooting. But an insinuation is hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Or does that basic principle of the law matter in this highly politicized case?


JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate