The myth of excessive force: What really happens in a police shooting

The myth of excessive force: What really happens in a police shooting
Image: Los Angeles Times video screen grab

Another unarmed black male was felled in a hail of police bullets last Sunday, bringing once again from the black community and the Left claims of excessive police force. After the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, a second low-profile case — the shooting of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham — prompted actor Samuel L. Jackson to declare it was “open season” on young black men.

Now, in the wake of the shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in Sacramento, the same battle cries are echoing. Black Lives Matter is back in the news, demanding not answers but retaliation against the two officers who fired a total of 20 shots at Clark, killing him. The group’s assumption is that the explanation for the shooting is already known — it is open season again — and all that awaits is “justice,” meaning a speedy trial and two guilty verdicts.

BLM has also decided in advance that if the two cops are acquitted, as has happened in so many cases, that will just prove that the system is biased against blacks.

That was certainly the assumption made in the 1999 killing of 22-year-old Guinean refugee Amadou Diallo, who was shot by NYPD plainclothesmen 41 times.

A look back at that case and at the extenuating circumstances might shed some light on the Clark killing. If nothing else, it explodes the myth that the cops using Diallo for target practice, as Al Sharpton claimed during and after the trial, which resulted in the acquittal of the four officers.

In an article in City Journal, Heather Mac Donald recalls the conditions that led up to the fatal encounter:

As February 4 began, an unmarked car carrying four undercover police officers from the elite Street Crime Unit cruised down Wheeler Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx. …

The four cops would have been briefed that night about a rash of shootings in the neighborhood, including the murder of a livery cabdriver. The unit was also looking for an armed rapist responsible for up to 51 assaults, including ten in the Soundview section, where he probably lived. …

The cops spotted a slender man pacing nervously in the doorway and peering into the windows of 1157 Wheeler, a small brick apartment building. Officers Sean Carroll and Edward McMellon got out of the car, identified themselves as police, and asked the man to stop. Instead, … Diallo, a peddler of bootlegged videos and tube socks on Manhattan’s East 14th Street, continued into the vestibule and tried to get inside the building’s inner door. Diallo had recently filed a wildly false application for political asylum, claiming to be a Mauritanian victim of torture orphaned by the government security forces. In fact, he was a Guinean with two well-off and living parents. He had reason, therefore, not to welcome encounters with authorities.

The two cops ordered Diallo to come out and show them his hands. Turning away, Diallo reached into his pocket and pulled out what Carroll thought was a gun. “Gun!” Carroll shouted. “He’s got a gun!” McMellon, who’d followed Diallo up the stairs, feared he was in point-blank danger and shot at Diallo three times before stepping backward, falling off the steps, and breaking his tailbone. Carroll, seeing McMellon down and thinking he’d been shot, opened fire. [Emphasis added]

As bullets ricocheted into the street, the other two cops concluded that a firefight was under way. They jumped out of the car and began shooting at the figure crouched in the vestibule. Diallo hadn’t fallen prone, according to the cops’ lawyers, because the nine-millimeter copper-jacketed bullets passed through him cleanly without bringing him down.

When the shooting stopped, eight to ten seconds later, the officers had fired a total of 41 rounds, 19 of which had hit Diallo, perforating his aorta, spinal cord, lungs, and other organs. Two of the officers had emptied their 16-bullet magazines. When they searched Diallo’s body to retrieve his gun, they found only a black wallet and a shattered beeper in a pool of blood. Officer Carroll wept.

Mac Donald goes on to note that that death of “Amadou Diallo was an unmitigated tragedy, demanding close investigation into police training procedures, to see if any feasible safeguards could have prevented it. But nothing in the police department’s recent history suggests that it was part of a pattern of excessive force. Nothing that is known of the case to date suggests that the shooting was anything but a tragic mistake.”

So far the investigation into the death of Stephon Clark is too fresh to drawer firm conclusions. The Los Angeles Times in an attempt to reconstruct the events known to date notes that “the shooting after a chaotic nighttime pursuit.”

Shaky body cam footage shows officers running up a dark driveway with flashlights. “Hey! Show me your hands! Stop! Stop!” an officer yells. As the officersrun into a backyard, they turn a corner and spot Clark in the glare of their flashlights. The officers take temporary cover behind the corner and then confront the suspect once more. This time, an officer yells at Clark to show his hands, then begins shouting, “Gun, gun, gun!” Gunfire then erupts.

The description sounds eerily similar to Mac Donald’s account of what went down a continent away 19 years ago. Like Diallo, Clark was holding an object in his hand that turned out to be a cellphone. According to a department statement:

[P]rior to the shooting, the involved officers saw the suspect facing them, advance forward with his arms extended, and holding an object in his hands. At the time of the shooting, the officers believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them.

One parting note about the danger of stereotypes and rushes to judgment. In Sept. 2016, NYPD Sgt. Kenneth Boss was named one of eight “Sergeants of the Year” for his daring helicopter rescue of a pair of stranded boaters in Jamaica Bay. Boss, who had served as a Marine reservist in Iraq, rappelled from the helicopter, attached the couple to a hoist, and delivered them to safety.

Boss was also one of the four officers who fired shots at Amadou Diallo. Had he been wrongfully convicted to appease public sentiment, he might not have been on hand to save the boaters in peril.

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Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.


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