Today in 1999: Unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo killed

February 4, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryAs part of Black History Month, Westlaw Insider will be examining issues and events that have shaped African American history.  

Twenty-three-year-old Amadou Diallo, originally from Guinea, worked as a street peddler in Manhattan and lived with his cousin in the Bronx. On February 4, 1999, he returned to his apartment around midnight, then went downstairs to the building’s vestibule. At the same time, four plain-clothed members of the Street Crimes Unit were patrolling the high-crime neighborhood when one of the officers, Sean Carroll, noticed that Diallo was behaving suspiciously, peering out from the building’s stoop, then “slinking” back.

Under the suspicion that Diallo was acting as a lookout in a robbery, the officers stopped to question him. They allegedly identified themselves and asked Diallo to “show his hands.” Instead, Diallo retreated and reached for his wallet, which, against the backlit vestibule, the officers mistook for a gun. The four officers fired 41 shots, killing Diallo.

Approximately a year later, the officers were acquitted, by a mixed-race jury, of all charges related to Diallo’s death. With the verdict came an eruption of public protest, igniting demonstrations against aggressive police tactics and racial profiling. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer ordered a study of 175,000 records of the Street Crimes Unit’s “stop and frisk” practice which revealed that, although African-Americans accounted for only 25% of the New York City population, they accounted for 50% of the individuals who were stopped by the Street Crimes Unit.

According to law professor David Harris, author of Profiles in Injustice: Why Police Profiling Cannot Work, when police use race as a factor in law enforcement, their accuracy in tracking down criminals decreases. In his book, Harris examines “hit rates,” the percentage of police stops that result in an arrest. He found that the number of hits, or arrests, was quite low in relation to the number of stops. Further, he found that, though more African Americans than Caucasians are stopped, the hit rate for African Americans is lower than that for Caucasians.

In the 2000 trial, Officer Carroll acknowledged he never considered that Diallo may have lived in the building he stood outside when first spotted by the officers. Additionally, Carroll and his fellow officers admitted they never stepped back and considered the situation from Diallo’s viewpoint. According to chief prosecutor Eric Warner, just as the officers were on guard in the presence of a suspected criminal, Diallo may have been ill at ease at the sight of “four big men getting out of a car with guns.”

For more information about racial justice in relation to “stop and frisk” practices, visit the New York Civil Liberties Union website, which presents facts about the issue, information on trainings and workshops, and the downloadable palm card What to Do if You’re Stopped by the Police, available in PDF format, and as an iPhone®­­ app.