Shooting death proves transition to a police state

February 16, 2000|By Gregory Kane

Anyone watching the Court TV trial of four New York City police officers charged in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo last February get the feeling the wrong guys are on trial?

Officer Sean Carroll testified Monday. He's the one who yelled "Gun!" when Diallo pulled his black wallet from his pocket, prompting the fusillade of 41 shots from the officers of the "elite" Street Crimes Unit. Nineteen hit Diallo.

Carroll did more than imply he can't tell a wallet from a handgun, two distinctly differently shaped objects made of two distinctly different materials. He acknowledged that he was trained only once on the police obstacle course in which figures with either weapons or harmless objects pop up before officers and they have to make a split second decision to either shoot or hold their fire. Carroll said the course is called "the Fun House." It's a flippant name for something that deals with a matter as serious as the life and death of both cops and civilians.

Joseph McNamara and Gerald Kelly, two former New York City detectives interviewed during a recess by Court TV about Carroll's testimony, were appalled at Carroll's statement about the amount of training he had received.

"They'd better go get the police commissioner and put him in the box with these officers," Kelly said. McNamara said New York's police department bears much of the responsibility for Diallo's death.

"They're so hyper," McNamara said of the officers in the "elite" Street Crimes Unit, "that everyone becomes a suspect."

Carroll's statements on the witness stand were all the proof viewers needed. The same night Diallo was shot, Carroll claimed he and partners Ed McMellon, Richard Murphy and Kenneth Boss stopped a man named Keith Quintos who was "a dead ringer" for a murder suspect. According to Carroll, the officers patted Quintos down, had a nice, palsy-walsy chat with him before concluding he was not the suspect and sending him on his way, but not before leaving him with the pleasant advice that he was likely to be stopped by more officers.

Later, as they cruised Diallo's block, the ever-cognizant Carroll -- there's no slipping anything by this guy -- noticed Diallo on his front stoop committing that notoriously suspicious act of looking up and down the block. Carroll figured Diallo might be a lookout for a gang in the act of a "push-in" robbery, and didn't he bear a slight resemblance to a composite sketch of a rapist?

By his own testimony, Carroll admitted he and his partners had stopped two different men who were committing no crimes. Pressed by the prosecutor on cross-examination, Carroll said that the overwhelming majority of people he's ever stopped were law-abiding citizens who were minding their own business and committing no crimes.

Should we blame Carroll for this? No. The Street Crimes Unit, he told us, was formed to "get guns off the street." Not dangerous criminals, mind you, but guns. The upside of that policy is that some dangerous repeat felons may indeed have been taken off the streets as well, although citizens carrying firearms for their own protection were no doubt caught in the sweep. The downside is the stopping and frisking of innocent civilians and the creation of a society that's only a heartbeat away from a police state. The ultimate downside is Amadou Diallo's bullet-riddled corpse.

But street cops don't make the policy. Police brass and politicians do. That's why the trial taking place in Albany, N.Y., has taken on an eerie "Breaker Morant" quality: four scapegoats set up to take the fall for a department's sins. And let's not forget who some of the most vocal proponents of "getting guns off the street" are: liberal black Democrats, some of whom, ironically enough, were arrested for protesting the Diallo shooting.

When Baltimore's liberal Democratic leadership sent police out to "get guns off the street," it resulted in yet another tragic police shooting. Sgt. Stephen Pagotto stopped Preston Barnes' car and approached with gun drawn. Barnes hit the accelerator as Pagotto reached into the car. The gun discharged, fatally wounding Barnes. Pagotto was convicted of manslaughter. The state appeals court overturned the conviction, chiding city leaders for urging police to use traffic stops as a pretext to look for guns.

Somebody needs to clue in the Big Apple's civilian and police leadership that using street stops as a pretext for nabbing handguns isn't such a good idea, either.

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