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Police Divide in New York

February 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Anger over Friday’s not guilty verdict of four New York City policemen resonated in demonstrations held throughout the city over the weekend. Last February, the officers shot and killed 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant. The four policemen said when Diallo reached for his wallet, they thought he was getting a gun. They fired 41 bullets, hitting him 19 times. More than 1,000 people gathered for a peaceful prayer vigil outside the United Nations yesterday. Activist Reverend Al Sharpton told the crowd he wants an economic protest until there is an investigation into possible human rights and civil rights abuses in the New York City case.

REV. AL SHARPTON: We’re going to boycott in this city. We’re going to hold our wallets until the federal government brings charges of civil rights on the case of Amadou Diallo. We will choose the target. We will hold our wallets. We’re afraid to spend money with certain people because we are suspects. Let’s hold our wallets. Let’s hold our wallets.

JUDGE JOSEPH TERESI: Would you please stand? And the clerk will address you and take the verdict.

RAY SUAREZ: The verdict came late Friday afternoon in Albany, 150 miles from the Bronx neighborhood where the shooting happened. The trial had been moved to New York’s capital because of intense pretrial publicity.

JUDGE JOSEPH TERESI: What was your verdict of reckless endangerment in the third count of the indictment?

JUROR: Not guilty.

JUDGE JOSEPH TERESI: Was it unanimous?

JUROR: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: All four officers were acquitted of second-degree murder and several lesser charges. During the three-week trial, the jury of four blacks and eight whites heard emotional testimony from the four officers. Sean Carroll– the officer who had yelled “gun!”– recounted his efforts to talk to Diallo after the shooting.

SEAN CARROLL: I lifted up his shirt a few inches. I observed two bullet holes to his lower midsection. I said, “oh, my God.” I just held him, his hand, and rubbed his face. “Please don’t die.”

RAY SUAREZ: In his instructions to the jurors last week, Judge Joseph Teresi reminded them of the legal requirements for guilty verdicts.

JUDGE JOSEPH TERESI: If you find that the defendant reasonably believed that his use of deadly, physical force was necessary in order to effect an arrest for what he reasonably believed to be the commission, or the attempted commission, of the crime of robbery, criminal possession of a weapon, then you must find that he acted in self-defense.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the jurors have said that the judge’s instructions made their verdict very clear. And after the verdict was read, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended his police force.

MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI: We probably do not always do the best job of training everyone. Maybe not every police officer picks it all up. But we have to continue to make superhuman efforts to increase that. At the same time, on the other side, on the side of the people who protest against the police and blame them for every ill in society, they have to reexamine what they are doing, how they operate, how they scapegoat the police, because that happens as often, if not more often.

RAY SUAREZ: Now back-to-back newsmaker interviews with two key players in this story. The first is with Howard Safir, the New York City police commissioner. I talked with him earlier today.

RAY SUAREZ: Commissioner Howard Safir, good to have you with us.

HOWARD SAFIR, Police Commissioner, New York City: Glad to be here.

RAY SUAREZ: Talk to us a bit about Friday’s verdict. It vindicates the officers in question. Does it vindicate the NYPD?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I don’t think this was about vindicating the NYPD. I think the verdict was based on the evidence that was presented to the jury, that the judge’s instructions were very clear. And the whole issue here was whether or not these officers believed that they were in fact in danger of losing their lives, and whether they had any intent to harm Mr. Diallo, other than based on the fact that they believed they were in danger. The jury clearly believed that they believed they were in danger and that there was no previous intent to harm Mr. Diallo. So the verdict was right. As far as the NYPD Is concerned, you know, this is one of those situations where the media particularly has taken one incident and tried to broad brush the entire department as if everything we did was like the Diallo case. The reality is that we do six million contacts with the public a year. We arrest 365,000 individuals a year. We rarely have anything of any problem in our arrests, and in fact, when you look at the record, we are the most restrained large-city police department in the United States. We use our weapons less; we fire fewer shots; we harm fewer people, even when justified. But, you know, this is a horrific case. This is a terrible tragedy for the Diallo family. I have great empathy and sympathy for the Diallo family. No one should lose a child, and no innocent man should lose his life. But I think you have to put it into the context that these are police officers who believed he had a gun. They were mistaken. And they reacted. They reacted as they were trained. And, you know, there should be compensation for the Diallo family, but that certainly shouldn’t broad brush the entire NYPD.

RAY SUAREZ: When you say “they reacted as they were trained,” over the weekend some elected officials, some leaders of neighborhood institutions have said whatever the verdict was on Friday, this creates a moment where the New York City Police Department should reexamine some of its training, some of its internal procedures. When you say things go by the book, maybe it’s time to look at what the book says. Do you agree?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I agree we can always continue to look at our training. In fact, we’ve been looking at our training and at our procedures from the day the Diallo case occurred, and we’ve changed a lot of our procedures. But the reality is, if you want to be totally honest and if anybody who has ever been in law enforcement wants to be totally honest, if you’re in a contained situation and you’re confronted with somebody that you in your mind you believe has a weapon, all the training in the world is not going to change how you react.

RAY SUAREZ: But instead of talking about the moment where someone yells, “gun!” and another officer falls to the pavement, maybe we could rewind a bit and talk about the initiation of the stop itself, seeing someone on a street and deciding or not deciding to approach them and question them.

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, we train our people very carefully in the law of reasonable suspicion and probable cause. And, you know, you have to remember that these individuals on that night were looking for a serial rapist, and the rapist’s description was very close to that of Mr. Diallo. And based on their background and experience, they felt Mr. Diallo was acting suspiciously. Now, when they approached him, as the facts showed in the case, Mr. Diallo did nothing wrong, but what he did engendered in the mind of these officers that they were in danger. They were mistaken, but they were honestly mistaken, as the jury decided.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the case itself and all the reporting that led up to the actual trial focused a lot on the particular unit that these men belonged to. And the report by the New York state attorney general shows that there’s a fairly large number of stops and frisks by members of this unit that turn up absolutely nothing. And when we look at the two extremes, stopping nobody and stopping everybody, how do you decide where the right happy medium is?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I think the right happy medium is based on the training and the experience of the officers and based on what they’ve set out to do. These officers do not indiscriminately stop people on the street. They do it based on the law, and the stop and frisk– and this is where the great fallacy is– a stop and frisk is not about keeping score on how many people you arrest. You stop… a frisk is done for the protection of the officer. And right up through the Supreme Court, they have held that that’s the reason for a frisk, is to protect the officer, not to make an arrest. And you know, this unit, which we have modified their activity a great deal, but this unit, which is 2% of the force, is responsible for 40% of the guns that have been taken off the street in this city. And we’ve reduced homicides in this city 60% over the last five years. So what you have to do is you have to balance both of those factors and make sure that you’re not violating people’s rights. But at the same time, this city is considerably safer than it’s ever been.

RAY SUAREZ: But when you have a large number of fruitless searches going on, do you also have to worry about the credibility that you have in particular neighborhoods among the men 18 to 25 in that neighborhood who may feel they’re being hassled, unnecessarily abused?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, certainly we have to do a lot more outreach to the young people of the city, and we’re doing a lot of that. But when you say “fruitless searches,” these searches are not designed to do anything but protect the officer. They’re not designed to find contraband, and that’s been the misperception of this whole issue.

RAY SUAREZ: The president of the Police Foundation, former Newark Police Chief Hubert Williams, someone I’m sure you know, said that if Amadou Diallo would have been Caucasian, he would have been viewed by the officers as reaching into his pocket for a wallet, not a gun.

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, I disagree with that. There are many cases in this country of Caucasians being shot mistakenly by police, and I don’t believe that would have been the case. I think the case is based on the totality of the circumstances. And you know, 20-20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, but when you review the facts and circumstances of this case, the horrible thing is that everything that possibly could have gone wrong in that situation went wrong: From the dimly lighted alcove to the police officer falling backward on his back at the same time that a shot was being fired, to the reflective paint behind Mr. Diallo which caused the officers to believe they were seeing muzzle flashes, to the ricochets, all of which were terrible. And as I said, this was a horrific situation, but you could not have scripted things going more wrong in that particular situation.

RAY SUAREZ: To a certain degree, you’re not out of the woods yet. Federal law enforcement officials are examining the case transcript to see if there were any civil rights violations. How do you feel about that?

HOWARD SAFIR: Well, you know, I was a Department of Justice official for 26 years at the federal Department of Justice, and I know a little bit about the criteria for bringing a 1983 action, a civil rights case. And it has to be where there’s a determination made that there was a gross injustice and that there was an unfair trial and that the defendants were not prosecuted in the proper manner or the judge acted unfairly or the jury acted unfairly. I don’t think any fair-minded person who looks at this case would suggest that Judge Teresi did not conduct a totally fair and open trial. In fact, the decision that he made to let cameras into the courtroom I think was a terrific one.

RAY SUAREZ: Commissioner Safir, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD SAFIR: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer.

RAY SUAREZ: President Ferrer, you heard the police commissioner. In your view, what does the verdict mean for the people of the Bronx?

FERNANDO FERRER, Bronx Borough President: Well, I think one of the things it means is there was a widening gulf of distrust between the community and their police department, and that’s a gulf that has to be bridged somehow by people who understand that the city level and at the community level that only a trusting and cooperative relationship with the police and the community will at the end of the day keep the community safer and keep police officers safer. And steps… positive steps have to be taken toward that goal. And those steps really include reform of many of the police procedures that gave rise to this terrible shooting, but also gave rise to the extraordinary number of stop and frisk actions which not only provoked an investigation by New York state’s attorney general, but also the Department of Justice itself.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’re one of the elected officials in New York who has been calling for a different approach in the training, calling for reform. You just heard the commissioner. He said all the training in the world wouldn’t have avoid that accident, that because of the particular scene that night in February of last year, this terrible thing happened.

FERNANDO FERRER: Well, I obviously disagree. First of all, there were important failures in policing that took place at that scene — failures in recruitment. This street crimes unit was quadrupled in size in a very short period of time to go after more of the statistics — failures in training. These police officers who were brought in from other responsibilities weren’t given adequate training. You had the case of the inexperienced being put right next to the less inexperienced, as was the case, by the way, of this four-officer team — and finally, supervision. There wasn’t a seasoned, experienced supervisor at that scene at that time who could have given these officers different instruction on how to deal with Mr. Diallo. And, of course, there were failures of policy at the very top that created the condition and the climate for all of this and the need to enhance accountability. That at the end will give people in the community that bridge of trust that they need to cross to have a productive partnership with their police.

RAY SUAREZ: The commissioner also discussed stop and frisk, which you yourself brought up, and his description of it was as a police procedure that met a legal threshold. You seem to be talking about something different, the relationship between individual officers and the community that they watch.

FERNANDO FERRER: Well, I’m sorry that the Commissioner Safir has ignored the fact that a lot of these, as you call them, fruitless stop and frisks send a message to people in the community. These people who have been stopped will tell 50 other people, look, I was stopped; I was tossed around. Maybe they identified themselves, maybe they didn’t. In fact, there have been reported incidents, numerous reported incidents of officers never having identified themselves or having identified themselves late in the process. All of these things can give rise to a very, very bad gulf of distrust that’s destructive at the end of the day between the community and their police department. And those are things that have to be fixed now. We have a verdict, but we really have no closure to this case and a lot of the conditions that gave rise to the atmosphere around this case. That’s what needs to be addressed now by the police commissioner and the mayor, who pursued these policies in the first instance.

RAY SUAREZ: But fixed how? You heard the commissioner refer to the low incidents of officers discharging their weapon. For a city its size, the police accidentally or intentionally kill very few New Yorkers according to widely agreed upon statistics. What would be different about the way the police do their work in the Bronx, which has some very high-crime areas?

FERNANDO FERRER: Well, you can’t disagree with those statistics, but they, of course, don’t tell the whole story. The street crimes unit, again, and that’s not the entire police department, nearly 40,000 men and women who do by in large a tremendous job for New Yorkers every day. But this street crimes unit was hastily put together. It was put together to go after the big statistics in crime reduction, seize more guns, and in fact, officers on that unit were told, “get me a gun a month.” Look, if you’re being give an quota like that, whether they want to admit to it or not, that puts intense pressure on police officers, especially doing probably the most complex and demanding police work in this or any other city in the street crimes unit in the middle of the night to come up with statistics. That’s the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the mayor talked about what he called a vicious antipolice bias among many New Yorkers. The commissioner referred to a rush to judgment in the councils of government in New York City. Do you think there’s an openness to listen to you about how to reform police work in New York?

FERNANDO FERRER: You know, these are the things that I have been saying and so many others have been saying for a long period of time. If they choose not to or continue not to listen to these sensible reforms that many of us are pushing, it seems to me that we lose a tremendous opportunity to rebuild that bridge of trust between the community and their police department. And at the end of the day, that will keep everybody safer — or else — this debate can be hijacked by the two extremes. On the one side, the behind apologist at police headquarters and on the other side, the actual cop bashers. And if either or both of those sides win, we in the middle, most of New York, lose.

RAY SUAREZ: But what about the fact that crime really has been reduced and tremendously so during the 1990′s — and the fact that if you talk to people on the streets of many cities, it’s the people in the highest crime areas that want police protection the most?

FERNANDO FERRER: Crime has been reduced, not only in New York City, but in major cities across America. And that is a good thing — much to the credit of the police department. But the super aggressive tactics needed to give way at some point to a return to community policing. That’s something that former police commissioners have said over and over again, and something which yields real results. Let’s bear something in mind. While all of the debate has been going on about lowered crime in the city over a long course of time, and lately the mayor has made a point of saying, “you know, for a while homicides have been going up,” he forgot to mention that in the very borough of New York City, where Amadou Diallo lived and died, homicides have continued to drop over time. Now, why did that occur? It certainly wasn’t the loss of confidence in anything that remotely resembled the criminal justice system. But, in fact, it was the response of people to their situation to, their conditions and to the appropriate policing. But we have too many of these instances across this city that we need to address. Denial of them is no answer.

RAY SUAREZ: Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, thanks for being with us.

FERNANDO FERRER: Thank you.