Verdict aside, police failed in Diallo case

Training: As `zero tolerance' comes to Baltimore, police must refine and intensify training.

February 29, 2000

THE ACQUITTAL of four New York City policemen in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo doesn't change this fact: The killing was a grievous failure of policing, by definition.

An unarmed man died before an ad hoc firing squad -- officers who were frightened, confused and apparently ill-prepared for the situation they walked into with weapons drawn.

A jury concluded last Friday that his death could not be called murder and acquitted the officers on lesser charges as well.

But the New York Police Department remains on trial for its apparent failure to prepare them for the situation, represented by Mr. Diallo's presence on a porch stoop. "Standing outside while black," critics have called it. "If you're black and you have a wallet, it's a gun. If you're white it's a wallet."

These pronouncements are too glib. But they show why it is in the self-interest of police authorities to make training as good as it can be.

The Diallo verdict comes in the context of widespread public concern about crime. Cities like New York have lowered the murder rate by sending out special squads to search for potential criminal activity. Such a squad happened upon Mr. Diallo.

To the extent that his death can be attributed to the urgency assigned to crime fighting, it compels everyone to recognize that over-zealous policing can be just as threatening as crime.

One of the four policemen acknowledged that he gave no thought to the possibility that Mr. Diallo had a right to be where he was. Why wouldn't that be consideration No. 1? Training should have made it so.

With a citizenry anxious for less violent crime -- and a mayor who has called for zero tolerance -- Baltimore's police face a particularly heightened challenge. Training -- and the good judgment of every officer -- will provide the last best protection against situations where police become judges, juries and executioners.

Police officers themselves will be the first beneficiaries. They will be better able to deal with situations that threaten their lives. They will be better prepared to avoid mistakes that take the lives of others.

And they could avoid what happened in New York, where a lack of preparedness has brought a likely halt to four policing careers, and an abrupt, tragic end to an innocent man's life.

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