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After the Verdict in the Shooting Death of Amadou Diallo

March 3, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: There’s a shrine now at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx. That’s where Amadou Diallo lived… and died in a hail of police bullets last February. Today people come from all over to pay their respects. They look closely to find the bullet holes left from the 41 shots that were fired at the unarmed west African immigrant as he stood in the doorway of his apartment building. They leave flowers, candles and angry notes. Some condemn the four white policemen who said they thought Diallo was a serial rapist suspect about to pull a gun on them when they fired. A wallet and a key chain were the only items later found on Diallo’s body. Transit authority bus driver Frank Hawkins brought his two daughters to the scene the other day. He wonders if what happened to Diallo could also happen to him.

FRANK HAWKINS: It’s not a matter of your economic standing but I think just basically the color of your skin sometimes they treat you in a different way. You know, I’m a law abiding citizen, a deacon in my church. So I can put on some long overalls and a jacket and run to my car and be mistaken also. That’s how I felt personally. I took that personally.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It was just a week ago that an upstate jury of eight whites and four blacks acquitted the four police officers of any criminal wrongdoing in the Diallo case. The decision set off a series of demonstrations led by New York City civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton.

REV. AL SHARPTON: You’re talking about 41 shots — four different cops — and the jury says nothing is wrong. And it almost sends the signal that whatever a policeman says is enough and that police have the right, based on their own imagined fears, no matter how unfounded they may be, to kill us –excessively kill us — and that there’s nothing criminal about it. I think that that is what made the verdict so appalling to us because it’s almost like you become the sitting duck to the whims of any police person.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yesterday Sharpton moved his protests to Washington, demanding the four policemen be tried in federal court for violating Diallo’s civil rights.

AL SHARPTON: If this nation could expect the George Bush the Justice Department to come back with indictments on Rodney King, we expect the Bill Clinton White House and the Justice Department to hear Amadou Diallo.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The U.S. Justice Department isn’t the only arm of government feeling the heat. The Bronx district attorney’s office is also under fire. Statewide poling shows only 30 percent of New Yorkers approve of the not guilty verdict. D.A. Robert Johnson has been criticized for doing a poor job of prosecuting the four police officers. Some people have called for his resignation, but at a news conference on Monday Johnson said the four cops are the ones who should resign.

ROBERT JOHNSON: Their mistakes – their misjudgments – their preconceptions led to the violent and horrible death of an innocent person. They should resign. I think that’s where the calls for resignation should be.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A group of dissident police officers — with a long history of criticizing the department for racial profiling — has come to Johnson’s defense. Police Lt. Eric Adams says the problem wasn’t Johnson; it was moving the trial to Albany, New York, and seating a jury with little knowledge of urban life.

ERIC ADAMS: The jury stated from the onset that they didn’t believe race had anything to do with this; they did not discuss race in the jury room. So regardless of what evidence was presented to not acknowledge that Amadou Diallo was shot and killed because he was a black man — that is clearly not looking at all the evidence.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new president of the powerful police union, the PBA, says the jury did weigh all the evidence and came to the right conclusion.

PATRICK LYNCH: It’s what I expected.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At 36, Patrick Lynch is the youngest officer ever elected president of the union. He’s made reforms in his organization since taking over last year — and the PBA paid for part of the four officers’ defense.

PARTICK LYNCH: What we tried to do in this case was put those 12 jurors in the shoes of those four police officers that night, knowing what they knew then, not what the jurors knew later. And, again, you have to bring in the human factors — the other issues — the city life that going on around you. The fear for your life you have…your adrenaline is pumping. You have an obligation to save yourself…save the other four police officers…the citizens that might be behind you…this all comes into play. When we’re in the quiet of the courtroom where you can hear a pin drop its easy to second guess. But when you’re standing on that stoop and everything is breaking loose, that’s what the police officer is dealing with.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you say to the critics who complain that if Diallo had been a white man he’d be alive today?

PATRICK LYNCH: I strongly disagree. If it was a white person that ran into a dark alley and turned like they had a weapon, I’m going to save my life; I’m going to save my partner’s life — regardless of who’s trying to kill me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Joyce Purnick has followed the Diallo case closely. She writes a twice weekly column about life in New York City for the New York Times.

JOYCE PURNICK: I think it leaves the average New Yorker — as well as the average citizen — baffled. I think most people do not understand how somebody could have been shot at 41 times — how 19 of those bullets could have entered his body, killed him, a totally innocent, unarmed man, and nobody is found guilty. And how do people understand that? It doesn’t compute. It doesn’t make sense to people. Somebody’s dead, somebody should be held accountable.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: No one is more baffled by all of this than retired, disabled police detective Felix Mendez. Last week, three days before the Diallo verdict, Mendez cut short a shopping trip with his family, after hearing his burglar alarm had gone off at home — in the Soundview section of the Bronx, the same area where Diallo was killed.

FELIX MENDEZ: I hear some commotion outside so I look out the window and I say great the cops are here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mendez says 30 to 40 police officers — some in riot gear — responded to the alarm. He says, they began to surround him.

FELIX MENDEZ: So I got my hands up — I say I’m on this job — I’m a police officer…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And you’re walking down the steps now?

FELIX MENDEZ: Yes, walking down the steps …I got two guns in my pocket.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mendez says he repeatedly stated he was a retired cop with department I.D. and two loaded guns in his pockets but says the police ignored him.

FELIX MENDEZ: At this time somebody hit me on the head..

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They hit your head on the fence?

FELIX MENDEZ: No, no. They hit me with an object or – I don’t know what it was – it could have been a flashlight — it could have been – I don’t know –

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is that how you got this black eye?

FELIX MENDEZ: Oh, not yet!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mendez says he was continually beaten, sprayed with mace and wrestled to the ground, as his two children looked on screaming from the doorway. He says several cops pointed guns at them.

FELIX MENDEZ: I see my kids in the doorway and then it came to my head, “Oh, my God. Another Diallo incident.” Just take one round, everybody is going to shoot.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: These Polaroids show the extent of Mendez’s injuries. Now — ten days after the incident — this 12-year police veteran thinks it proves anyone could be the victim of police brutality.

FELIX MENDEZ: Yes. It could happen to anyone — no matter who you are, what you are…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: His wife Lucy no longer trusts the men in blue.

LUCY MENDEZ: We do have friends who are officers, and I know there are good and bad. But if someone would stop me and I don’t know who they are — I don’t trust them anymore. I’m afraid.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Neither the police department nor the union would comment on Mendez’s allegations pending an internal investigation. Instead, they point to statistics that show the New York City police fire their weapons less than any big city police department and have fewer Diallo-type wrongful death incidents than other large cities.

PATRICK LYNCH: And not one of us ever gets up in the morning to commit murder. We go out there to do our job. It’s a difficult job. There were many dangerous neighborhoods in this great city just five short years ago. The neighborhood I worked in — Williamsburg, Brooklyn — you could not safely walk down the streets. Now my members can’t even afford to live in that neighborhood. It’s because the cops went out there and did a thankless job and did it for the right reasons — to be on the side of truth and the neighborhoods are safer. The average person knows that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But recently the murder rate started creeping up, so city hall will reportedly spend 20 million dollars to put 400 additional officers on the streets. Columnist Purnick says that raises a larger question.

JOYCE PURNICK: Do you want to people to give up liberty in order to keep crime down for the large majority of society?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what’s the answer?

JOYCE PURNICK: I think that for now society has decided yes, that it would rather put up with the kinds of violations of civil liberties that we see now, as compared to a few years ago when we had drive-by shootings — because of drug deals going on everywhere. People have made implicitly – I don’t think it’s been conscious – but I think implicitly people have made that choice.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But activist Sharpton says that may be true for most white Americans, but if you’re poor and a minority it’s a different story

AL SHARPTON: It’s an unenviable position to be in, when you have to be afraid of the cops and the robbers in your own community.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sharpton and other police critics have called for reforms — including residency requirements for New York City police officers, diversity training and the establishment of a truly independent civilian complaint board. The police union says what’s needed are higher salaries and better training for young recruits. Meanwhile two nights ago, just three blocks from 1157 Wheeler Avenue, another police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man — this time the victim was a known drug dealer on parole who had a long history of criminal offenses. He was shot during a scuffle with a cop over his gun. The incident set off protests in the neighborhood. Ironically the dead man’s last arrest was one week ago in another neighborhood protest against the jury’s verdict in the case of Amadou Diallo.