For police, a steadier eye on race relations

As the N.Y.C. case goes to jury, it is altering station-house culture nationwide.

This week, a racially mixed jury will consider if four white New York police officers committed a crime when they fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, as he stood in the streetside entryway of a Bronx apartment.

Diallo's death, and now the officers' murder trial, have unleashed searing emotions, in New York City as well as in communities across the US. But as closing arguments begin today in an Albany, N.Y., courtroom, the case already appears to have become a pivot point for improved police sensitivity to racial issues.

In the year since the shooting, citizen complaints about the city's police have dropped - and the number of police shootings is down significantly. Around the nation, the Diallo case may also have helped police departments become more conscientious about grappling with the issue of racial profiling.

"The shooting has had an impact - the question is how long term," says Eli Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice here.

Last week, the US Department of Justice held a conference in Washington on racial profiling by police. It was a follow-up to a White House-led summit on police brutality last June, when President Clinton came face to face with Diallo's mother.

"It was clear to me that one of the reasons we had a follow-up session was spurred by that incident," says John Crew, who was at the meeting and who follows police issues for the American Civil Liberties Union. "There has been a ton of activity taking place on police misconduct, especially police practices as it relates to race, much of it spurred on by the Diallo incident."

Mr. Crew says many police chiefs say their biggest challenge this decade will be race-related.

"We are at a moment in time where some national attention is being paid to it," he says. A similar moment arose after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991, when "there was some talk, but not much follow-through."

Beginning steps

This time, however, signs of real change are evident.

Since the Diallo incident, several states have started to collect data on racial profiling. Nineteen states are now considering anti-racial-profiling bills. And more than 100 police departments, including those in Houston and Richmond, Va., have voluntarily begun to assemble data to look for racial bias in policing.

"The question is: What will they do when the data come back - will they take steps to root out those officers who are involved in misconduct?" asks Crew. "Right now, we are seeing movement on the easy stuff."

The Diallo incident appears to have had some impact in New York. The Street Crimes Unit, which included the four officers on trial, has essentially been eliminated. The unit was made up of plainclothes officers driving unmarked vehicles in high-crime areas. Although they represented about 2 percent of the city's police force, they accounted for 40 percent of the illegal guns seized.

But they also accounted for many complaints. Two years ago, the unit made 45,000 stops and 10,000 arrests, with 5,000 convictions. Many stops resulted in a barrage of complaints from minorities, who said they were being singled out.

"When I make a presentation in black and Latino neighborhoods, a good percentage of my audience has been harassed. They often say, 'I could have been Diallo,' " says Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (NY ACLU).

Last week, in an unusual gathering of police chiefs and civil rights activists in the state, the NY ACLU hosted a conference on police brutality. Mr. Siegel calls it the beginning of a dialogue between law enforcement and civil rights groups. The NYPD, however, did not participate. "It's because they still have an us-versus-them kind of attitude," says Siegel.

Marilyn Mode, an NYPD spokeswoman, said the department would not comment about the Diallo case, or any related issues, until after the verdict.

Since the Diallo case, the number of police shootings has declined in the city. Last year, police killed 11 people, compared with 19 the year before. The number of wounded went from 43 to 31.

"This is part of a downward trend, but one may speculate that this [case] hastened this trend," says Mr. Silverman, author of the book "NYPD Battles Crime."

Riveting testimony

Testimony in the case, including from the officers on trial, proved riveting. After the shooting, one officer was so shaken up, his sergeant recounted, that he had to be pulled from the vestibule where the incident took place. Another broke into sobs several times on the witness stand as he recalled his shock at finding Diallo unarmed.

The shock came because another officer had yelled, "gun" when he saw Diallo pull something black from his pocket. The item turned out to be a wallet.

Nationally, police officers say the Diallo incident reinforces the importance of training. "We teach the concept, shoot what you know, not what you think," says Maj. Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., police.

To make that point, Mr. Ijames uses a computer program that can be set for different scenarios. For example, an officer comes across someone breaking into a soda machine. The officer challenges the perpetrator, who reaches into a pocket. Should the officer shoot first?

"We teach that the reality is the hands - the hands will draw the weapon, and an officer should not be misled by other things," says Ijames, also an instructor for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Whether the officers charged in the Diallo case acted appropriately - and in accordance with their training - will soon be in the hands of a jury to decide.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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