A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.
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A Harlem Tragedy and Its Exploiters
Police officer Omar Edwardss death had nothing to do with NYPD racism.
2 June 2009
The fatal shooting on Saturday of New York City police officer Omar Edwards by a fellow officer is an unbearable tragedy. Officer Edwards was an honor to New York. As a child growing up in Brownsville, he loved the NYPD and determined early on to become a cop; he recently married the mother of his children and was looking forward to a life together with them. All New Yorkers grieve for Officer Edwardss family and friends.
But Officer Edwardss death was not an instance of police racism (Edwards was black; the officer who shot him was white), however much the usual suspectsthe New York Times, Al Sharpton, Charles Rangel, New York City Councilman Charles Barrondespicably try to portray it as such. And though painful to consider, it appears at this point in the investigation that Edwardss own actions in the heat of the moment, while understandable, may have put him at greater risk of friendly fire.
At around 10:30 PM on May 28, Officer Edwards was leaving a police station on E. 124th Street in Harlem after work. He was wearing street clothes. He spotted a man trying to steal his cars GPS system and initially grabbed him, but the thief wriggled free and took off down E. 125th Street. Edwards gave chase and pulled out his gun. Three plainclothes officers in an unmarked car observed the chase and noticed that the pursuer had a gun drawn. They stopped to intervene; two officers grabbed the perp, and the third, Officer Andrew Dunton, yelled to Edwards: Police! Stop! Drop the gun! Drop the gun! according to the NYPD. Instead, Edwards wheeled toward Dunton with his gun still in his hand, and Dunton fired off six rounds, killing him.
At first glance, the charge that the Edwards shooting exemplifies police racism looks like the familiar conceit: when white officers see a black man with a gun, they assume that he is a criminal. But within that conceit, in the present instance, is another idea: that the burden rests on an officer confronted by a man pointing a gun at him to disprove that the armed man is an undercover or off-duty police officer before legitimately using deadly force in self-defense. Thus, this line of reasoning goes, since Officer Dunton did not establish that Edwards was not a cop, he should not have fired his gun. And the reason that Dunton did not bother to establish Edwardss identity was that Edwards was black.
This implicit argument is absurd. Within the split second available to him, an officer staring down the barrel of a gun cannot possibly gather the evidence to rule out that he is facing a fellow cop before firing. If the departments version of the events is confirmed, Dunton did everything he could under the circumstances, and everything he was trained to do: identify himself as an officer and shout for Edwards to drop his gun. When Edwards instead spun toward him, Dunton had no more time to ask: Are you a police officer? and wait for an answer. That Duntons perception that he was facing an armed perp turned out to be sickeningly wrong does not mean that it was not justified under the circumstancesespecially since Dunton had just observed Edwards chasing another man down the streets of Harlem, where such episodes involving criminal gun use happen with far greater frequency than they do 50 blocks south. (As for whether Edwards was justified in taking out his gun while chasing the car vandal, the police department leaves it to the judgment of an officer regarding when to unholster his gun. Officers are allowed to draw and point their weapon when they have a reasonable belief that they might have to use itsuch as when confronting a known violent offender. Presumably, Edwards perceived a threat from junkie Migueal Goitia. Yet officers are also taught that they should not come within striking distance of a suspect with their weapon drawn, except in the most extreme circumstances, a teaching that Edwards presumably would not have followed had he caught up with Goitia. While unholstering and running with his gun in hand may have been within departmental policy, one can question how wise such actions were, especially if the goal of the chase was to grab the suspect, for which both hands are needed.)
Putting the burden on Dunton to have avoided this catastrophe is contrary to the reality of potentially deadly encounters. Instead, when Dunton shouted at Edwards to drop his gun, Edwards was supposed to comply, as the New York Post reports. The NYPD Patrol Guide puts the burden on an officer confronted by a fellow officer to provide his identity. He must remain motionless, even if it means a fleeing suspect may escape, according to the Patrol Guide, and he should not turn [his] body, especially if holding a firearm. Unfortunately, with adrenalin pumping, as Edwardss no doubt was, following such a sequence of precautionary steps is extremely difficult; its understandable that he turned toward Dunton with his gun still drawn. If possible, academy and in-service training should make freezing absolutely instinctive in such internal police confrontations. But the fact remains that Edwards did not follow department protocol devised precisely to avoid such tragic mistakes.
The demagoguery that the citys racial agitators have taken up with their usual glee only compounds this tragedy. Most reprehensible is Congressman Charles Rangel, who told Sharptons National Action Network that President Obama (who came into the city Saturday evening) was at risk of getting shot by the NYPD: If [he] did not have the Secret Service . . . around him, [city cops] wouldnt know if he was president of the United States, Rangel said. Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron chimed in: First we couldnt drive while black, now we cant police while black.
Rangels subsequent effort at an apology, following criticism by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, is so patently inadequate that he must have meant it as a deliberate insult. It was entirely inappropriate to bring the President and his wife into this discussion during their visit to New York, and I hope my off-the-cuff comment did not cause embarrassment to anyone, Rangel said in a statement. In other words, the NYPD can go to hell. Or, better yet, get slapped by a federal consent decree. Rangel invited U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to "review the problems in the New York City Police Department when black officers are killed by whites, which too often is the case." Holder, who foisted an unnecessary and burdensome federal consent decree onto the Los Angeles Police Department while serving as Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration, will undoubtedly be happy to comply.
The New York Times has inevitably adopted the policing while black theme as well: Black Officers Face a Special Peril, it declares, on the basis of five prior instances of friendly fire directed at minority officers dating back to 1940, four of them lethal, and one not even involving a black officer, but rather two Hispanics. Five cases of friendly fire during the hundreds of thousands of undercover operations conducted by the department since blacks became a critical mass on the force does not seem like an epidemic, however horrible each shooting was. The Times did not disclose whether tactical errors on the part of the victims contributed to those shootings, or how many officers have been shot by criminals over those 70 years. In fact, 386 officers have been killed since 1940. And the last two black police officers killed in the line of duty were shot by two black teens in Staten Island in 2003.
Al Sharpton and his followers, for their part, have discovered a sudden appreciation for police officers. After leading a protest march through Harlem on Saturday, Sharpton delivered a short prayer, according to the Times: For Omar Edwards, he said as the 80 or so marchers bowed their heads. A hero in our community. For once, Sharpton is absolutely correct: Edwards was a hero. But its strange how the only police officers whom the race-baiters seem to recognize as heroes are black ones who have been shot by white officers. There is no record of Sharpton leading a protest march against the three thugs who fatally shot Officer Russel Timoshenko in cold blood in July 2007, after Timoshenko pulled over the stolen SUV in which the career criminals were making their getaway. Those killers, who knowingly and deliberately gunned down a uniformed Timoshenko and his partner Herman Yan, have expressed no remorse. Dunton, who believed that he was confronting an armed assailant, has been stricken with grief at the consequences of his actions, crying almost constantly, according to press reports.
On March 21, 2009, Lovelle Mixon, a fugitive parolee, fatally gunned down two Oakland motorcycle officers who had pulled him over, then killed another two officers while holed up in his sisters apartment, before being fatally shot himself. The Timess coverage of the Mixon case consistently concealed that a rape victim to whom Mixon had been linked by DNA was 12 years old, nor did it report that Mixon was eventually tied to the rape of two women on the day of the shooting. About 60 members of the Oakland branch of the Uhuru movement, a black nationalist group, marched in support of Mixon, chanting OPD [Oakland Police Department] you cant hidewe charge you with genocide. If [Mixons] a criminal, everybodys a criminal, explained one of the marchers. Mixon also inspired a candlelight vigil and a makeshift shrine. If Sharpton or Rangel condemned the killing of the four Oakland officers, none of whom were black, or the glorification of their killer, they uncharacteristically did so out of hearing of the press. Nor did they organize any protests over the 2003 Staten Island murder of the two New York black undercovers. But then their killers were not cops.
For a moment, lets assumeagainst the evidence, but as the race agitators implythat officers really do have the time to establish whether the person pointing a gun at them or threatening others with deadly force may be another law-enforcement agent before acting to stop the threat. Why might a police officer be more likely to see a possible plainclothes or off-duty cop? Because whites commit just over 1 percent of criminal shootings in New York City, though they are 35 percent of the citys population. Blacks commit about 82 percent of all shootings, though they are just 24 percent of the citys population. Those crime figures come from the victims and witnesses to those shootings, in their reports to the police. A white man criminally using a gun is such a rarity in New York that the sight of a white man threatening others with a gun might more naturally raise the possibility that he is a police officer. Indeed, Eric Adams, the former uniformed anti-NYPD agitator and now New York State Senator, admitted as much to the New York Times, though both the Times and Adams seem to think that his statement is an indictment of officer racism: One of my cops once said that if he sees a non-uniformed black man with a gun, he takes precautions for himself; if he sees a white guy with a gun, he takes precautions for both because he knows it could be a fellow cop. Still, despite the unavoidable fact that New York gun crime is almost exclusively a black and to a lesser extent Hispanic phenomenon, none of the NYPDs critics has suggested what steps Dunton could have taken, within the split-second available to him, to establish that the man facing him with a gun was an off-duty cop, even if that man had been white. The chances are overwhelming that Duntons reaction to the apparent deadly threat would have been the same, regardless of the potential shooters color.
The Edwards death is a case of idiosyncratic events gone horribly awry. All officers were acting in good faith; the three officers who stopped the chase were trying to protect New Yorkers from the gunfire that was a far more common occurrence in Harlem 16 years ago, before the NYPD brought city crime down by over 77 percent. There are lessons to learn from the tragedythe department can try to train officers even more rigorously in the automatic reactions needed to deescalate a confrontation when they have been mistaken for a perpbut none have anything to do with departmental racism. The entire force is in mourning for its fallen comrade. Sadly, the Times continues to sound the theme that it was Dunton who was at fault in the case, while its coverage has yet to reveal the police department rules on officer-on-officer confrontationsa crucial piece of information for understanding the episode. Implying that Edwardss death reflects a broader problem of racism within the NYPD only strengthens the sense among blacks that they face a hostile environment and thus dangerously fuels racial tensions in the city. And it does a disservice to the department that has saved thousands of black lives since the early 1990s.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.