Lethal Force

Traffic on the sidewalks along Manhattan’s East 14th Street thinned out around 10 p.m. on Feb. 3. It was time for street vendor Amadou Diallo to fold up his table of socks and CDs and head home. On a good night, Diallo, an immigrant from the African nation of Guinea, could make up to $150 selling his wares. “He was saving for school, to learn computers,” says Raza Choudhury, 27, who sometimes works at the C&B Convenience Store where Diallo, 23, stowed his goods. But Feb. 3, a Wednesday, had been quiet. Diallo, a Muslim, said his evening prayers in the store’s back room, shook hands with the owner and stepped into the night.

Remarkably, there are 20 Amadou Diallos in the New York City phone directory. What was about to befall this young man would make the name a synonym for senseless tragedy, a rallying cry in widening protests against police brutality and a focus of simmering racial resentments. At 12:44 a.m., Diallo was entering his Bronx apartment building when he was stopped for questioning by four plainclothes police officers. Seconds later he was dead, his body riddled with 19 bullets. In all, the officers had fired 41 rounds at Diallo, who was unarmed and had no criminal record.

Attorneys representing the four policemen, members of the NYPD’s elite Street Crimes Unit, say the vendor hadn’t responded to the officers’ questions and appeared to be reaching for a gun.

They also maintain that the officers kept firing because Diallo somehow remained standing throughout the shooting. Yet on March 31 a Bronx County grand jury indicted the men—Sean Carroll, 36, Edward McMellon, 26, Kenneth Boss, 27, and Richard Murphy, 26—on second-degree murder charges, finding evidence that the killing was unjustified. By the time the officers were arraigned—all four pleaded not guilty—outrage over the shooting had led to weeks of demonstrations. Some 1,200 people, including such prominent figures as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Charles Rangel, submitted to arrest while blocking the entrance to police headquarters. And a team of attorneys led by O.J. Simpson’s defender Johnnie Cochran plans to file a civil suit on behalf of the Diallo family, claiming that autopsy reports will prove Diallo fell to the ground after the first bullets struck him. “The police shot Diallo down like an animal,” says Rev. Al Sharpton, who has led daily protests over the shooting, “and their statements will come back to haunt them.”

New York City’s police commissioner, Howard Safir, called the shooting a tragedy but adamantly defended his cops. “The danger is from criminals in this city, not from police,” he told PEOPLE, adding that, statistically speaking, he leads one of the most restrained big-city forces in the country. Though Safir concedes that over the past two years tens of thousands of citizens in high-crime areas have been stopped and frisked and, blameless, sent on their way, he denies that police discriminate against blacks. “I don’t decide where crime takes place, and it just so happens that the majority of crime is in communities of color,” he says.

But many New Yorkers—and Americans in general—are not reassured. “I wake up at night in a panic that this kind of thing could happen to my son or grandsons,” says actress Ruby Dee, 74, who was arrested on March 23 with her husband, Ossie Davis, 81. On April 3 protesters from around the country, galvanized by this shooting, marched in Washington, D.C., to demand justice in the Diallo case and other alleged police abuses against minorities in other states. “The Diallo shooting is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, 69, who was also arrested in New York.

Absent from the raucous protests, but very much at the turmoil’s center, stood Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a former prosecutor whose police force has contributed to a 50 percent decline in the city’s overall crime rate since 1994. Giuliani (who declined to be interviewed for this article) denounced Diallo’s killing as “tragic,” too. But he derided the civil disobedience at police headquarters as “a great publicity stunt” and, in a move that struck many New Yorkers as characteristically insensitive, announced, on the day that Diallo’s body was flown back to Africa, that police would be equipped with deadlier hollow-point bullets.

The protests grew by the day. With his popularity rating down by 20 percent—and the controversy dogging his nascent campaign for a U.S. Senate seat—the mayor did something he almost never does: He said he had “made a mistake” in dealing with the Diallo shooting. That same day the 375 plainclothes officers of the Street Crimes Unit (motto: We Own the Night) were ordered to wear uniforms, and 50 cops from the almost entirely white unit will be reassigned to make room for minority hires.

Following the Diallo shooting, many prominent African-Americans, reportedly including Rudy Washington, the only black among Giuliani’s four deputy mayors, have complained of being stopped and questioned by police just for being black. Ironically, if there had been one New Yorker who had no qualms about the mayor and his war on crime, it was Amadou Diallo, who arrived in the city from his West African homeland in 1997. “He was a spiritual man, very good with all people, even his brothers and sisters,” says Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, 39, an agent for two Australian mining companies in Conakry, Guinea. The oldest of four children, Amadou was born in Liberia and educated at French-speaking schools in Togo and Thailand—countries to which his father, gem trader Saikou Diallo, 56, moved the family to avoid political instability in Guinea.

It was in Bangkok, where Kadiatou was raising her children alone after she and Saikou divorced in 1989, that Amadou, fluent in English and a devoted Michael Jordan fan, first announced his ambition to move to America. “He said he wanted to come here to be his own man, to support himself and go to school,” says his mother. The news came as no surprise. “When I look at pictures of him now, he’s always wearing USA T-shirts and caps,” she says. “To be here was always his dream.”

Amadou first returned to Guinea to ask the blessing of family elders, then flew to New York City, where he moved into a small apartment within earshot of the screech and thunder of the No. 6 elevated subway line. He began a life that differed little from those of immigrants to this country a century ago. “When you come here you find that you cannot afford to sit down,” says Diallo’s cousin Ngare Balde, a physician in Manhattan.

And Diallo, with his shy smile and slight stutter, was no exception: After a stint as a bicycle messenger, he made an agreement with Shahin Choudhury, 39, owner of the C&B Convenience Store, to perform odd jobs in return for permission to sell his merchandise outside the shop.

Friends say Diallo, who didn’t drink or smoke, occasionally played soccer at a Bronx park and kept a small black rug on which he knelt in prayer five times a day, in keeping with Islamic custom. He also devoured newspapers and magazines. “When he was working, I knew I didn’t have to read The New York Times,” says Shahin Choudhury.

After nearly two years of struggle, Diallo’s fortunes seemed ready to change. Four months before his death he called his father in Vietnam to ask for advice about starting up a business with one of his half brothers. “They wanted to open a shop in the Bronx to sell silver and gold rings,” recalls the elder Diallo. Meanwhile, Amadou had also called his mother to ask her to check out the family of an attractive young woman back in Guinea whom he was considering as a possible match. When mother and son last spoke on Jan. 31, Amadou told Kadiatou he would send his brothers pairs of Nike sneakers.

Three days later, four officers in an unmarked car drove away from Street Crime Unit headquarters with orders to head to the Bronx in search of a serial rapist whom victims had described as African-American. According to their lawyers, the cops spotted Diallo standing in the dimly lit vestibule of his apartment building and stopped to question him. Diallo didn’t respond, they say. Instead, he reached for his back pocket. Officer Sean Carroll, a five-year veteran of the force, shouted, “Gun!”

The sound of gunfire woke the residents of gritty Wheeler Avenue in an instant. Officers Carroll and McMellon, a part-time college student, were the first to fire their 9mm semiautomatic pistols. McMellon reportedly fell backward off a step, leading the other officers to believe, according to their attorneys, that he had been shot. With that, the others unleashed a fusillade, and Diallo slumped into a pool of blood. As Officer Carroll attempted to administer CPR, he realized the victim was unarmed, and at least two of the officers began to cry, say the lawyers.

But what about Diallo had the police officers found suspicious in the first place? In keeping with their right not to testify, they have not fully explained the events of that morning. But they insist they were acting within the law. “My client had this sick feeling in his stomach that he was about to be shot,” says attorney James Culleton, who represents Officer Murphy. “That’s reasonable. That’s justification under the law [for defending himself].”

Now it will be up to a jury to decide whether the officers’ fear of being shot was justified under the circumstances. Without knowing all the details, many rank-and-file police officers believe it probably was. “This is a terrible tragedy,” says Officer Vinnie Martinelli, one of a thousand police officers who have marched in support of the four defendants. “None of us get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to go out and kill someone today.’ But if I felt my fellow officers’ lives were in danger, I would shoot, absolutely.”

Yet others argue that the Diallo shooting is a case of overaggressive policing by the Street Crimes Unit, which, with just 1 percent of the NYPD’s manpower, accounts for 40 percent of the department’s gun seizures. “The adrenaline is going in these situations, but you have to wait until you see a gun,” says Michael Julian, a former NYPD chief of personnel. “Police face threatening situations every day, where they see a sudden move and believe a guy has a gun but they don’t fire. That’s because they are trained to take cover and respect human life.”

Amadou Diallo was buried in Hollande-Bourou, the village of his ancestors, on Feb. 17. The trial of the officers accused of killing him won’t begin for months. While waiting, his parents will keep a busy schedule of appearances at noisy rallies, including a 16-city tour to begin in May. But between the marches and the meetings, Kadiatou Diallo’s lifeless eyes betray a more somber reality. “I’m not going to ask for something impossible, because my son, he is gone,” she told supporters on an overcast April Saturday in Harlem. “And I pray to Allah that no woman should cry like we have.”

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