first published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 8, 2000


Amadou Diallo, a 23 year old African immigrant who was killed by New York City police in the building in which he lived in the Bronx, February 4, 1999. Police fired 41 bullets; Diallo was unarmed.


by Matt Gonzalez

MANY LEGAL COMMENTATORS are having difficulty reconciling the Amadou Diallo verdict with the revelation that four African American jurors “heard” the evidence and nevertheless found the officers’ actions justified. Most are concluding that justice was served, since there was no explicit instance of racism cited during deliberations.

But this focus on the racial makeup of the jury, to assess the validity of the verdict, misses the point. The verdict, to my mind, underscores the extent to which our criminal justice system has taught police officers to immunize their actions from prosecution by appealing to claims of “officer safety.”

The mantra, used in the Diallo case, is heard daily at the Hall of Justice as officers testify about police activities. “The defendant was reaching into his pocket.” “I believed he might be armed.” “I detained him fearing for officer’s safety.” Judges swoon to sustain police actions after hearing such “facts.”

Now, either the police are telling the truth and have discovered a widespread illness that criminal defendants suffer from that causes them to place their hands in their pockets whenever approached by police – or police have been conditioned to make these claims in a Pavlovian manner over time, fully aware that the legality of a detention or arrest and subsequent search will virtually always be sustained.

Those accused of crimes know what I am talking about. It is a fact of life. The cop is going to “lie” against them. And the cavalier attitude that comes with the certainty that all actions will be justified slowly permeates other aspects of police work. Slowly, there is a disregard for reality.

Officers testify as percipient witnesses in matters they know nothing about, as in the recent New York City Harlem station scandal, or they explicitly fabricate evidence because the ends justify the means, as in the recent Los Angeles Rampart Division fiasco.

I want to emphasize that I reach these conclusions cautiously after litigating for many years and in thousands of cases. I’ve also learned from many conversations with police officers, who in moments of candor admit that their testimony will always be believed before that of a criminal defendant’s. And yes, they will say what they need to, in order to prevail in activity they liken to a war between good and evil.

Diallo died because we as a society have not found a way to reconcile our desire to be safe with our desire to be free. We have punted our responsibility in this regard and allowed police to check their own actions.

And let me make this as clear as I can: If the officers in the Diallo case had been convicted of criminal negligent homicide, they would have been facing the same sentence as if they had sold $5 worth of marijuana in California. And he was hit with 19 bullets.

The jurors in the Diallo case reported that they felt they had no choice but to acquit. The prosecutor, Eric Warner, who has spent his career proving cases with the police mantra, seemed an unlikely candidate to suddenly attack that very testimony.

Diallo died because police officers in the Rampart District of Los Angeles want to tattoo themselves with skulls and guns in what would be an obvious parody of the gangs they “fight” but for the fact that they actually did engage in such mimicry, and because we allow a gang-like attitude to pervade the Street Crimes Unit in New York, which already has claimed a post-Diallo victim.

So I ask: What man doesn’t have a dark-colored wallet? Show me who is immune from the harm that results from this culture of lawlessness.

Time Magazine cover, March 6, 2000.

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