The tale of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed security guard shot by police in a bungled drug sting, is reviving the debate of the aggressiveness of police tactics - especially those used for the war on drugs.
On March 16, when Mr. Dorismond became the fourth unarmed black man killed by New York police in a little over a year, already-tense relations between many New Yorkers and their police force boiled over. On Saturday, 23 police officers and five civilians were injured when violence erupted at Dorismond's funeral.
The shooting has also prompted calls for a federal monitor to oversee the city's police department and become a central issue in an increasingly bitter Senate campaign between New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But critics see in the Dorismond tragedy a larger question: Have urban police, in their zeal to crack down on illegal drugs, become overly aggressive? At the same time, they say, the police's tactics have been buttressed by a series of Supreme Court decisions that have rolled back privacy protections enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.
"This tragic shooting was in the furtherance of the war on drugs," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a nonprofit drug policy center in Washington. "The tactic of trolling for drug suspects without any reasonable suspicion is a common one in our antidrug effort."
But police supporters note that the crime rate is at a 30-year low, and illicit drug use has dropped in the past 20 years - from a high of 17 percent of Americans reporting use in the past year, to 11.2 percent in 1997. They also defend police practices as warranted to deal with drug dealers who have become increasingly sophisticated.
In New York, which two months ago launched an intensive $24 million assault on drug crime, overall crime is down 8 percent from last year and narcotics arrests are up 36 percent, according to Police Commissioner Howard Safir.
But critics point out that on the national level, drug-related deaths have more than doubled from 7,100 in 1979 to 14,800 in 1996. And high-school seniors report that heroin and marijuana are cheaper and more-readily available now than at any point since 1975.
Dorismond and his friend Kevin Kaiser were hailing a cab on Eighth Avenue after midnight March 16 when several men who Mr. Kaiser said "looked like derelicts" approached them and asked if they were selling "smokes."
Dorismond angrily said, "No." A scuffle ensued, a gun went off, and Dorismond was shot in the chest and killed.
City Hall's response
At an emotional funeral procession for Dorismond over the weekend, thousands of mourners lined the streets of Brooklyn calling for the resignations of Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Safir. Both the commissioner and Giuliani defended the police in the Dorismond shooting. They say the gun went off by accident.
Protesters charge that their endorsement of aggressive police tactics in the antidrug effort has created an atmosphere where such shootings are tolerated.
And they say the mayor, in particular, has shown no "respect" for the dead man and his family by releasing Dorismond's sealed juvenile-court records.
The mayor has defended both the police and his actions. "At least one version of the facts would suggest that Mr. Dorismond acted in a way that was very aggressive toward police," Giuliani said at a press conference last week.
Giuliani has said privacy rights die with an individual. But critics don't buy that, and point out that in the Vince Foster suicide case, the Supreme Court held that Mr. Foster's privacy rights are still intact, despite his death.
"What is the idea of having a record sealed if it can be unsealed for political purposes?" says the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Critics believe the circumstances surrounding the Dorismond shooting reveal a larger problem brought on by the Supreme Court's erosion of Fourth Amendment rights related to unreasonable search and seizure. In its most recent ruling, the court decided that running or walking swiftly away at the sight of a police officer justifies a stop, without any other indication of criminal activity.
"Tragically, we live in a time, at least in some communities, where there are very good reasons for some people to want to avoid contact with the police," says George Kendall, attorney at the NAACP. "The cops feel increasingly that they have license to conduct unwanted encounters in the absence of any probable cause or reasonable suspicion or any indication at all of wrongdoing. And that's certainly the perception of minority communities from coast to coast."
Criminal-defense attorneys and police experts note that the enforcement of drug laws is by its very nature intrusive and proactive. Unlike robbery or murder, where there is a clear victim for the police to aid, drug transactions usually take place between consenting individuals. That's a key reason many experts are now calling for a rethinking of the nation's antidrug effort.
"We have so demonized the issue of drugs ... that we allow police to behave in ways that we probably wouldn't have in a less-charged context," says Charles Adler, chairman of the Criminal Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
"We as a society have to ask ourselves if we want a situation where the enforcement of the law is more harmful than the breaking of the law."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society