Column: Diallo verdict again raises race relations issues

When an Albany, N.Y., jury acquitted four white New York City police officers on all charges last month in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old African immigrant, all hell broke loose. This unfortunate case illustrates the tense relationship between the police and residents in high-crime areas like the Bronx and it raises the question of racism among white policemen in New York and elsewhere.

I watched much of this dramatic trial on Court TV and agreed with the verdicts that found the policemen not guilty of second-degree murder; however, I would have voted for involuntary manslaughter because they were responsible for the death of an unarmed man who was gunned-down in the vestibule of his own apartment building. The four officers, apparently fearing for their lives, fired 41 shots, 19 of which hit Diallo, who died on the spot. If it wasn't a crime, it was most certainly a terrible (and avoidable) tragedy.

Although the Rev. Al Sharpton, a noted black racist, described the fatal incident as an unequal confrontation between trigger-happy white cops and an innocent black victim, it was much more complicated than that. For starters, the jury was composed of eight whites and four African-Americans, all of whom agreed on the not-guilty verdicts and unanimously rejected racism as an element in their deliberations. The jury's black foreperson, Arlene Taylor, told the New York Post that their deliberations had "nothing to do with race." She said they followed the judge's instructions and applied the law to the facts.

Unlike the black jury in the O.J. Simpson case, this jury deliberated seriously for more than 20 hours. But now, Sharpton and others who pre-judged the policemen are looking for someone to blame with attention focusing on the Bronx district attorney. The DA faced an uphill battle, however, because he not only had to prove the officers' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt but also had to convince the jury that the officers had no reason to fear for their lives.

All four policemen testified that they thought Diallo was reaching into his pocket for a gun as he crouched in the dimly lit doorway of his apartment building at 1 a.m. One of the officers shouted "Gun!" and they opened fire, only to discover that Diallo was reaching for his wallet.

It is particularly ironic that the Rev. Sharpton is calling for "justice" in this case. You may remember him as the mastermind of the 1988 Tawana Brawley rape hoax, in which he charged that a black girl had been sexually assaulted by a group of white law enforcement officers including a deputy prosecutor. The prosecutor, Steven Pagones, later won a $65,000 defamation judgment against Sharpton.

And then, in 1991, the race-baiting reverend again fanned the flames of racial hatred following the accidental killing of a black child by a car in a Jewish motorcade. The violence that followed culminated in the street-mob murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.

Nevertheless, Democratic candidates including Bill Bradley, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore have recently groveled before Sharpton in a shameless search for black votes in New York City. My hope is that most New York voters will reject this form of racial politics on "Super Tuesday" and next November.

In a cover story on "cops, brutality and race," the March 6 edition of Time magazine raised important questions about race and law enforcement in America. As Time noted, the Diallo tragedy involved "a city's battle against crime, the skin colors of power and powerlessness, the politics of outrage, (and) the ambitions of a First Lady (Hillary) and a mayor (Rudy Giuliani)" along with racial profiling, police brutality, the rights of minorities and the promises of the Constitution.

In addition to the Diallo case, and closer to home, Time discusses the growing corruption scandal in the beleaguered Los Angeles Police Department in which a rogue cop who stole cocaine has accused fellow anti-gang officers of shooting suspects, planting evidence and lying in court. So far, 40 convictions have been overturned, 20 officers have been suspended, two others fired and many more placed under suspicion in an ongoing investigation by the LAPD and the FBI.

An internal report blamed the Los Angeles problem on dubious hiring practices, low salaries, understaffing, bad management and "a culture of mediocrity." Too often, police officers were trying to impress their supervisors.

"The seed of corruption begins when cops are asked to fill in the blanks for district attorneys to make cases," said Gene O'Donnell, a former cop who is now a professor at New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "If they (the police) don't remember, there's a tremendous pressure for them to make it up."

Fortunately, for the most part, we've avoided such problems in Carson City although there have been several lawsuits filed against our Sheriff's Department. We should insist on adequate training for local officers, including Spanish-language instruction in order to deal effectively with the rapidly expanding Hispanic population in our area. Overall, however, the Carson City Sheriff's Department is doing a good job with limited resources as are police in surrounding jurisdictions.

But the best way to avoid the kind of problems that have beset big city police departments is to promote understanding between our police and the diverse communities they serve, especially Hispanics and other minorities. As former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton wrote in Time, "Just as police are essential for the reduction of crime, they are also essential for the healing of racial divisions." I couldn't agree more.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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