Cops In The Crossfire

In a city that often seems to have more than its share of heartbreak, the story of Amadou Diallo stands out. He was by any measure a terrific young man--hardworking and quick with a smile, one of the thousands of immigrants who, year after year, come to New York to seek their fortune. And so it was shameful and terrifying that in a brutally quick misunderstanding with police, Diallo was shot dead in the vestibule of the apartment building where he lived in the Bronx. In eight seconds, the cops fired 41 rounds and scored 19 hits, smashing through Diallo's spinal column and severing the main artery to his heart. He was hit so many times he began to spin, like an animal on a spit, and he may have been dead before he hit the floor. Everyone agreed his death was a tragedy--but was it, legally, a crime?

Last week a racially mixed jury in Albany, N.Y., said no--Diallo's death was not murder, not manslaughter, not even criminal negligence. The four cops involved in the shooting--Kenneth Boss, 28, Sean Carroll, 36, Edward McMellon, 27, and Richard Murphy, 27--hugged each other and their lawyers and left the courtroom without saying a word. The verdict stunned New Yorkers, and because Diallo was African and the four cops are white, the case symbolized the gulf between African-Americans and whites not only in New York City, but everywhere. Coupled with the dismaying news from Los Angeles, where authorities are pursuing a mammoth police scandal involving perjury, corruption, brutality and even murder, the Diallo case sheds light on the potential downside of more aggressive policing--tactics that help reduce crime but that can also lead to abuses and tragic mistakes. The country may soon have to confront the question of whether the police crackdown in big cities--where many people are grateful for lower crime rates--justifies the continuing erosion of trust between police and minority neighborhoods. Federal authorities have prosecuted more than 300 cops nationwide for civil-rights violations in recent years, and more than 200 have been convicted. One question is whether police are trained well enough for the aggressive tactics now being used in many cities. "We probably don't always do the best of training everyone," Mayor Rudy Giuliani said after last week's verdict. "We have to continue to make superhuman efforts to [improve] that."

Then there's the charge that police routinely target minorities--that they discriminate through "racial profiling." A recent study by New York's attorney general concludes that blacks and Latinos are significantly more likely to be stopped and frisked, particularly in majority-white neighborhoods. Was Diallo, who was unarmed, just collateral damage in the war on crime?

The four cops who were acquitted last week will never forget him--and they are free today in large part because they convinced the jury they felt real remorse at his death. The four were members of the NYPD's elite Street Crimes Unit. Just after midnight on Feb. 4, 1999, Carroll, McMellon, Boss and Murphy were riding in an unmarked Ford Taurus when Carroll spotted Diallo in the doorway of 1157 Wheeler Ave. in the Bronx. Carroll didn't like the way it looked. Afterward, he said he thought Diallo might have been a suspect the cops were seeking in a series of rape cases, or that he might be a lookout for a burglary in progress. Boss stopped the car and backed up. He and Murphy stayed in the car while Carroll and McMellon, in street clothes, jumped out and walked toward Diallo.

What happened next was a horrific blunder. Carroll and McMellon said they identified themselves as police and told him to keep his hands where they could see them. Diallo, they testified, didn't do that. According to the cops, he "darted into" the building, reached into his pocket and produced a dark object. Carroll shouted "Gun!" and both he and McMellon started shooting as they backed away from the vestibule. Then McMellon tripped and fell, which made it look as if he had been hit. Carroll and McMellon emptied their clips, 16 shots apiece. Boss fired five times, Murphy four times. Some rounds apparently ricocheted, making it seem to the cops as if they were under fire.

Diallo crumpled to the floor without a word, dying or already dead. The firing stopped. Carroll walked up to the body and looked for the weapon they all thought would be in Diallo's hand. The dark object was only a wallet. "Where's the f-----g gun?" Carroll yelled. Then, he testified, he tried to give Diallo CPR, pleading, "Don't die! Don't die." Telling his story on the witness stand, Carroll bowed his head and began to cry.

Prosecutors countered that Diallo was doomed from the moment the cops got out of the car--that the officers apparently never thought that Diallo might be an innocent civilian who had every right to be where he was. A pathologist, basing his conclusions on analysis of the 19 bullet wounds, said the cops kept on shooting after Diallo was down. Neighbors testified there was a split-second pause in the long sequence of gunshots, suggesting that the cops had had time to reconsider their decision. But none of that mattered. Under the law, the officers were justified in shooting if they thought Diallo had a gun, even though they were wrong. "There was certainly a lot wrong with what happened, but it shouldn't rest on the heads of the police officers," said Dr. James J. Fyfe, an expert on police training and tactics who testified for the defense. "If officers are encouraged to engage in high-risk encounters, the possibility of these train wrecks grows exponentially."

This train wreck may cost the taxpayers millions if the city settles with Diallo's mother and father in the inevitable lawsuit. There is also the possibility that the four cops will face federal prosecution for violating Diallo's civil rights. "I definitely want them to go to jail," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York political gadfly who helped turn the Diallo case into a cause celebre. So do many in the city's black and Hispanic neighborhoods, where there were scattered protests and a few arrests last weekend. But there was no real unrest, thanks in part to Sharpton and Diallo's mother, Kadiatou, both of whom made public pleas for calm. The right goal now, said New York State Comptroller Carl McCall, watching the angry crowd on Wheeler Avenue, is to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Photo: Not guilty: Carroll and Boss (right) react

Photo: Anger in the Bronx: Despite a handful of arrests, demonstrations over the Diallo verdict were few and peaceful