Forty-one shots. Police officers Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, and Richard Murphy stand accused of the second-degree murder of Amadou Diallo because of the number of shots they fired. For many, the 41 shots prove the officers' reckless disregard—perhaps even murderous intent. "I accept that terrible mistakes happen in police work," these critics say, "but not 41 shots."
The critics are wrong, as I can attest from experience. In a 1991 hostage crisis, I led an elite rescue squad that fired 45 shots and killed the hostage taker. Probably all but the first shot, it turned out, were unnecessary. Yet we weren't trigger-happy or easily flustered cops. At the time, I had 26 years with the department, including 15 years as a patrol officer and detective. I'd arrested hundreds of suspects and been at the scene of numerous confrontations and shootings. I had fired my gun only twice in my years of service, both times as a warning, back when the department permitted warning shots. My team was seasoned and steady. Two of my officers even withheld fire during an earlier hostage crisis that saw another cop killed. In that episode, the officers downed the perpetrator with a single shot.
In the 1991 incident, a man had barricaded himself in his girlfriend's Brooklyn apartment with six hostages. The crisis began during the early morning when two members of the NYPD Street Crime Unit stopped his car because of a missing license plate. Getting out of his car, he opened fire, hitting both officers and seriously injuring one of them. Then he fled to his girlfriend's apartment. When detectives came looking for him, he took his hostages: his girlfriend, her three kids and one grandchild, and his own child. We arrived at 6 am, and secured the apartment by lowering Kevlar ballistic curtains over the windows from the apartment above, wheeling a steel-plated ballistic shield a few feet in front of the door, and attaching a rope to the door handle to open and shut the door. Then we tried to coax him out.
At 11:50 am, the man released the hostages and seemed ready to surrender. "Okay, I'm coming out," he yelled, moving through the door. Then he suddenly raised his arm and fired at us. Three officers from my unit returned a volley of gunfire, and an apparent gun battle exploded. The three cops fired 20, 16, and 9 shots, respectively, all in about five seconds. The noise was deafening, the adrenaline pumped, bullets ripped through the door, which we had slammed shut in the melee. Only after the shooting stopped did we realize that we had killed the suspect—most likely with our first shot.
What happened? An early shot hit the suspect in the head and he fell behind the base of the ballistic shield, so we couldn't immediately see his slumped body. Lead slivers from our own bullets ricocheting around us—hitting one officer near his left eye—gave the impression that the dead man still was blasting away from behind the door.
I think the cops in the Diallo shooting made a similar error, and thought they were exchanging gunfire with a dangerous assailant—an impression reinforced when McMellon fell backward off the building stoop as if he'd been shot. Since everything was over in a few heartbeats, the officers doubtless knew the magnitude of their mistake almost instantly. I can imagine their shock and despair. Like my emergency team in 1991, the officers misread rapidly unfolding events. We fired more than 40 shots in the mistaken belief that a dead man was shooting at us. The Diallo cops fired more than 40 shots in the mistaken belief that an unarmed man was shooting at them. An honest—though, in the Diallo cops' case, tragic—mistake, but no crime.
Police work is the only job I know of in which an honest mistake can get you indicted. A doctor whose honest mistake leads to a patient's death won't face murder charges. That fateful night, the officers hunted a serial rapist whom Diallo resembled. Surely, we want police to look for such a menace—who may have attacked as many as 51 women—and we'd expect them to stop and question anyone who looked like him, right? Exactly what happened next we don't know, but if the officers believed that the suspect was shooting at them, wouldn't we expect them to shoot back?
So, if these cops did what we want and expect, but made a tragic error, why do they face murder charges?