That's the official word of New York City's mayor, police chief and courts regarding the Feb. 4, 1999, shooting death of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was unarmed when four cops from the street crime unit pumped 19 bullets into his body. An Albany, N.Y., jury acquitted the cops on Friday.
"We thought his wallet was a gun," the four officers -- Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Kevin Boss and Ed Mellon -- testified in their defense. They admitted they were mistaken.
New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Police Chief Howard Safir both called Diallo's shooting "a tragic mistake."
Lawyers for the accused rehashed the same theme throughout their opening statements.
"This is a tragedy, not a crime," they intoned to the jury.
In other words, whoops. Our bad. A mistake. A minor error. A tiny glitch in the great New York City crime fighting effort. No big deal. Just a little goof, is all. Now, it's time to get on with business as usual.
There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, business as usual would mean that the street crime unit would return to stopping, frisking, questioning, intimidating and harassing any person walking along, minding his or her own business. In short, the unit would be free to continue the same practices, using the same tactics of repression, that triggered Diallo's shooting.
The second problem is that Diallo's death wasn't a "tragic mistake." It was a screw-up of Brobdingnagian proportions, so large and egregious that returning to business as usual simply will not suffice. Heads should roll over this one. It's only a question of whose head should be first.
Let's start with Carroll, Murphy, Boss and Mellon. They've got to go. They've already confessed they can't tell a wallet from a handgun and that they couldn't even tell if they were under fire. Whether you support the jury's verdict or reject it, you'd have to be a very trusting soul to say you feel safer with these guys on the street.
Next, fire the street crime unit supervisor at the time of the shooting. Then, can his boss. Work up the New York Police Department chain of command until you get to Chief Safir, then kick him out. Then, New York's City Council can get on with the business of impeaching Giuliani for adopting a policing strategy that arguably resulted in the grossest peacetime violation of civil liberties in the nation's history.
Giuliani, as the civilian running the show, has to bear the blame for the sins of the street crime unit. Most officers don't join the force to become Nazis. When they act like the Gestapo, you can bet there's a civilian -- or a group of civilians -- behind the scenes giving them a nudge.
The mission of the street crime unit was dictated by civilians. "We're frightened of crime," they whined to elected officials, who went to the cops and said, "Look, our constituents are scared of crime. Now, get out there and stop and frisk and get those guns off the streets."
Given this charge, the cops went out and did just that. Crime in New York dropped, but parts of the city became mini-police states. A black woman who used to be in the street crime unit testified last year that some 40,000 people were stopped in a two-year period. Some 9,000 were arrested, but only 4,000 served any time. At least 31,000 people who hadn't committed a crime were stopped for no good reason. (The woman got the ax right after she testified.)
That's not the frightening part. Those stats just show cops doing what civilians asked of them. The most frightening reaction has come from some civilians, who've said that if the police state and Diallo's bullet-riddled body are what it costs for a safe city, it's a price they're willing to pay.
That view cuts no ice with those of us alarmed by the creeping fascism infecting the nation. The war on drugs has led to violations of civil liberties. Now, the civilian-inspired war on guns waged by New York City's street crime unit has led to even greater violations and at least one death.
The parties responsible must be brought to account. They can't whoops their way out of this one.