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The Diallo Case

April 12, 1999



While ethnic strife makes news in Kosovo, a drama with racial overtones has been playing out in New York City. There, four white police officers have been charged with second-degree murder after killing an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo.

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The incident, in a city still reeling from the 1997 police brutalizing of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, set off daily protests at which more than 1,000 celebrities, politicians, and others were arrested. (A judge last week dismissed the charges against the demonstrators.) Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's inept initial response to the killing stoked the sense of outrage.

The black community's reaction to such incidents is understandable. African-Americans, especially young men, are frequently harassed by police across the country. Tragically, police too frequently shoot and kill unarmed blacks that officers believed - or say they believed - were reaching for a gun. Rarely do such unjustified killings result in prosecution or conviction of the officers involved.

The New York case also unfolds against the background of the infamous Tawana Brawley affair, in which a black teenager claimed to have been attacked and raped by white police and prosecutors. An investigation showed the charges were spurious. But the Rev. Al Sharpton, a controversial black activist, has figured prominently in both cases. This has led some to conclude, wrongly, that the Diallo case is just another politically motivated attack on the police.

Prosecutors have an uphill struggle to secure the officers' conviction. NYPD procedures give cops far more protection when they are accused than a civilian enjoys. Such rules hobbling investigators must be revised to bring them into accord with those of other big-city departments.

Improving police-community relations starts in the mayor's office. To his credit, Mr. Giuliani has altered his approach, meeting with members of minority communities and asking officers to be more courteous with the public. He's ordered police in the Special Crimes Unit, to which the accused officers belong, to don their police uniforms. That's a start. The NYPD has significantly reduced its use of deadly force, but more needs to be done.

The aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King case in Los Angeles is a reminder of the need for all parties to act responsibly as the trial proceeds. The last thing New York City needs is another outbreak of racial strife.

What's needed now is a healing touch. Roman Catholic Cardinal John O'Connor set the right example last week, meeting with the Diallo family, who are Muslims, and the Rev. Mr. Sharpton. People of good will from all faiths and ethnic backgrounds must maintain control of events. At stake here are fundamental issues of public trust and civil order.

Giuliani, a two-term Republican, is gearing up a bid for the US Senate seat now held by retiring Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He might face first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. How he handles himself in the Diallo affair from here on out could well determine his political future.