Diallo shooting excessive, but somewhat understandable

The facts are not in dispute. Slightly more than a year ago, four white plainclothes police officers were searching the Bronx for a rape suspect when they spotted a black man standing in the doorway of an apartment. They got out of the car, approached him and identified themselves, and told him to keep his hands in plain sight. The man retreated toward the building, reached into his pocket and produced a dark object. One officer shouted “gun”; the other two backed away and opened fire. One tripped and fell on the ground, appearing to be shot. The two officers emptied their clips, 16 shots apiece, as the other two fired four and five shots each. Out of the 41 bullets fired, 19 hit the man. He probably died before he hit the ground. The officers approached the body, finding not a gun in his hand, but a wallet.
The man who was shot 19 times — enough that when his body was lifted, bullets fell from it — was Ahmed Diallo, a 22-year-old native of Guinea. He had come to New York in 1997 and worked as a street merchant, sending most of his earnings home to his parents. No one knows exactly why Diallo was in the doorway, but everyone knows how he left it. For the past year, the case has been a flash point for police brutality and race relations. Finally, on Feb. 25, a jury of four blacks and eight whites found the officers innocent of murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment to human life, although they still could face other litigation.
The issues surrounding the case are not as simple as black vs. white. No one disputes that 41 bullets were excessive, or that race did play a role. But to claim that race was the sole factor in the shooting is very simplistic. No one questions that racism still thrives in America, but men are rarely lynched simply for being black. It would be a grave error to reduce the shooting to race, because it simplifies this complex case to absurdity.
The Rev. Al Sharpton stated that if Diallo “was facing a firing squad, he would not have been fired at 41 times.” Unfortunately, this statement tries to simplify this situation and disregards several important circumstances. Consider: Diallo didn’t follow orders when the officers approached him, his hands strayed toward his pockets and he ran back toward his apartment. Also, one of the officers fell to the ground as he was stepping back, it was dark and hard to see what was in Diallo’s hand, and bullets were ricocheting around the officers.
These events do provide justification to the officers for opening fire. But were 41 bullets justified? Was it right for the officers, according to pathology reports, to continue to fire on Diallo after he had fallen? Of course not. These are two prime examples of excessiveness on the part of the police that need to be addressed. But police do walk a tightrope every day, often at odds with the communities they are supposed to serve and the duties they must perform. The police, whether we like it or not, are enforcing the laws we are all supposed to abide by, from speeding violations to serial rape. But they aren’t perfect. What happened to Ahmed Diallo was painfully tragic, but some action was required by the police. If they were not taught to act so fast, if Diallo had a gun and not a wallet in his hands, instead of mourning the death of Diallo, we would be mourning the deaths of four New York cops. Neither choice is very appealing.