Saturday, July 28, 2007

Justice, Sacrifice and Amadou Diallo

Remembering an innocent man and the incompetent police that took his life.

One of the reasons our society here in the United States of America so honours its veterans, and to a lesser extent its police officers and firefighters, is because they give up so much for the greater good of society.

They give up their time, their safety, and often their lives so that the majority of Americans can live lives relatively free from harm, crime, pain and tragedy. It is the sacrifice of these heroes that allows us the freedom to have whatever kind of life we choose to have.

One of the things these heroes sacrifice is their right to be judged by the same standard as normal people. In the military, the laws of the United States don't even apply; military personnel are subject to the Military Code of Justice, which in some cases differs greatly from the laws the rest of us are bound by.

It is a noble thing, to give up so much to protect others.

I am thinking of the case of four police officers who allegedly shot and killed Amadou Diallo February 4th, 1999 in the Bronx.

It is a tragic thing, claimed defense attorneys for the four cops, but it was not intentional. The question, then, is whether these police officers should be punished for their actions.

The officers were searching for a rape suspect. In the course of their manhunt, they spotted Diallo, a black male, and told him to freeze. Diallo, a West African immigrant, didn't understand what they were saying but knew he was in trouble because the police were shouting at him. He reached for his wallet, perhaps to identify himself, perhaps because he thought the plain-clothes cops were robbing him. The police say they thought he was reaching for a gun, and shot him.

Not just once.

Dozens of shots were fired, 19 of them hitting Diallo, fatally wounding him. Supposedly, just prior to this hail of gunfire, one of the cops may have shouted "gun!" indicating to his fellow officers that Diallo was armed and about to shoot them.

Diallo was not armed. He was reaching for his wallet.
No one could have seen a gun, because he did not have one.

When you prosecute a citizen for a crime, you have to prove three things: Motive, intent, and opportunity. Of the three, the cops apparently only had the opportunity to kill Diallo. They had neither the motive nor intent, so far as we know.

Does that excuse their actions?

I don't believe that it does.

From everything I understand about hunting, admittedly little, hunters are taught not to shoot their guns until they are 100 percent certain what it is they are shooting at. Only then, when they are sure they have the deer, or bear, or whatever in their sights, are they supposed to fire.

These cops did not have a criminal with a gun in their sights. They had an unarmed man who did not understand the words being shouted at him. "Freeze?" At what point, even if you were learning English, would you come to understand what that meant?

Would it not have been better to shout "stop!" at him?

But Diallo's lack of language skills is not the question. He was in this country legally. There is no law requiring immigrants to learn English, so far as I know, and I would oppose one if there was; assimilation should be dictated by the worthiness of the culture one is joining, not by legislative fiat. Certainly, there is no law requiring immigrants to learn the lingo shouted out by gun-slinging plain-clothes police officers. Amadou Diallo broke no law that I am aware of. I am sure if he had, the defense would have brought that up in the trial of the four killers.

The officers that shot and killed Amadou Diallo did so mistakenly. But it was a mistake that cried out for justice. It was the job of those cops to protect the innocent, not murder them.

And what they did is a kind of murder, because they failed to uphold their own standards, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt who they were shooting at and why; anything less puts the lives of every innocent man, woman and child at risk. While those killer cops had neither motive nor intent, apparently, I submit that they should not be held to the same standard as the average citizen. They should be held to a higher standard. It is the job of the police to protect the innocent, not murder them. Their incompetence was criminally catastrophic, and should have required a punishment that met the magnitude of their error.

The officers did not adequately perform their jobs. In fact, they took their role as protectors of society, and perverted it beyond recognition. The death of Amadou Diallo remains, all these years later, one of the most heinous, unjust and horrific crimes ever committed. It is tragic, yes, but it's a tragedy that could have been prevented, with training, with testing, with standards of excellence and an understanding that the lives of innocent people come before the lives of police officers. Perhaps if that standard were enforced, fewer would want to be police officers, but the ones that did would be better cops. They would understand that they are here to protect people, not to defend themselves against possible harm from an unknown man who may very well be, and in the case of Diallo was, innocent.

If those cops had held been held to that standard, Amadou Diallo would still be alive today; alive, innocent and free to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Remember, it is the job of the police to protect the innocent, not murder them. The price of that protection will sometimes be police officers getting killed, in order to protect the greater good. Had Diallo been the suspect they were hunting, had he been in possession of a gun, and had he started shooting, it would have been preferable, by far, that one of those officers die in the line of duty, their chosen duty, remember, than that an innocent man die, as Amadou Diallo did that day.

It's why we honour our heroes. Their sacrifice, remember? The four killers of Amadou Diallo sacrificed nothing, except the life of an innocent man.

Note: The officers -- Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll , Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy -- were charged with second-degree murder, but the jury was allowed to consider lesser charges. The officers pleaded innocent and were eventually acquitted of all charges by a jury in Albany, New York.