I listened to the Diallo verdict in the administrative office of my command. Crowded into the small office were three lieutenants, three sergeants, and two detectives. These were some of the most senior supervisors in my unit. Except for me, every cop in the room had more than 15 years on the job. We had been placed on alert—ordered in from the field and into uniform, awaiting instructions from headquarters in the event that the public reaction to the verdict would turn violent. Some of the men in the room had worked all day and were there to find out if they could go home. Others had just arrived and waited to see what their tour had in store for them.
At five o'clock, the verdict was read. Each of six charges was read for each of the four defendants; 24 times the jury foreman responded "not guilty," and each time the members of the jury concurred. This took more than five minutes. There was not a sound in the admin office during that time. Our overwhelming emotion leading up to the verdict was sadness. We know that ultimately this episode is about the death of an innocent man.
We all felt that the removal of the case to Albany was wise. It is common knowledge in law enforcement and legal circles that juries in the Bronx are unsympathetic to cops. Officers on trial there frequently waive their right to have the case heard by a jury. For that matter, it is harder to get a conviction in the Bronx when a cop testifies for the prosecution. Many of these trials involve innocent people who must watch those who victimized them go free. Often, in the Bronx, justice is not done because the residents mistrust the police.
As it became clear that the four police officers who shot Amadou Diallo were going to be acquitted, there were quiet expressions of relief in the office. Some just let out the breath they were holding. We were relieved not just by the acquittal of four fellow cops who we all believed should not go to jail, but also by the confirmation that any of us, believing himself to be in mortal danger, can use his weapon.
Still, in my office—and, I suspect, in most of the rest of the police department—there were no cheers of joy at the system's success. The system did not fail those four cops, but it did fail Amadou Diallo. It failed in the most profound way that it could. And our knowledge that we are part of that system clouds any satisfaction we might take.
The Diallo cops are not entirely off the hook. There is the frequently mentioned possibility of a federal civil rights case against them. There is also the certainty of a review by the firearms review board of the police department. If they are found to have violated departmental procedure, they will face a department trial and possibly lose their jobs. But the smart money says they go back to work.
The worst thing that we as the police can do is take away someone's sense of security. I enjoy particularly good service from the police department—perhaps out of professional courtesy, or because I know a lot of cops, or because I speak their language. Not long ago, shortly after I bought a nifty new car, it was stolen, never to be seen again. Being a crime victim myself was traumatic; what made the incident much less difficult for me was the presence, effort, and sympathy from the two uniformed guys who showed up when I called the police. This is one of the nicest things about being a cop, and it is very easy to get used to. It is hard to imagine calling the police and being afraid that they will hurt me. It is hard to imagine being so afraid that I wouldn't call, even when I needed help. I know that it is incumbent upon us never to do this to anyone.
The actions of individual police officers can shape the feelings of the country toward all police officers. This is unlike almost any other group in America: Fairly or not, if I am corrupt or I am brutal, many will see me as representative of all cops. This is at least partially because I clothe myself in the system, and the system protects me. This does give a police officer the additional responsibility to act as an ambassador from the land of law enforcement at all times.
There was more at stake in Albany yesterday than the fate of four police officers. Thousands of cops' faith in the system was in jeopardy. Yet when we killed Diallo, more was snuffed out than the life of one unfortunate, innocent man. Many, many people's faith in the NYPD, an institution that I care about deeply, may have died with him. In any case, his death has set us way back. Police Officers Carroll, McMellon, Boss, and Murphy do not belong in jail. But every cop in my office today was aware that it is going to take a long time, a lot of sweat, and probably some blood to deal with what they have done.
Related inSlate: After the cops killed Amadou Diallo, everybody played the racial inference game. See William Saletan's "The Diallo Verdict: Rational Profiling?"