“My hope,” the mom said gently, “is that history will not be repeated.”
Kadiatou Diallo is talking about that horrifying moment in February, 1999, when her son, Amadou, was shot to death in the entryway of his apartment building by four New York City police officers.
The four cops were members of the NYPD’s anti-crime unit, operating in street clothes, and executing tactics that the department says helped identify and apprehend gun carrying criminals who were terrorizing the city.
But in this case they were tragically wrong. Diallo, an immigrant from Africa, was unarmed and engaged in nothing more than breathing some Bronx night air.
When he saw the four armed men jump out of their car and bear down on him, he retreated into the vestibule and drew out his wallet, presumably to surrender it, if he thought they were bandits, or to identify himself, if he realized they were cops.
The cops reacted by firing 41 bullets, killing Diallo and igniting a tide of anger that lead to the disbanding of the anti-crime unit.
Now, 23 years later, the city faces a new wave of gun violence that a new mayor has vowed to curb by, in part, resurrecting police anti-crime units. Mayor Eric Adams deployed the first of those new units last week just as Mrs. Diallo was visiting friends and allies in the city.
“I’m concerned about using the same system,” she said Saturday, “even if you name the system in different names, or use another type of identity, costume or whatever.”
Mrs. Diallo says she has spoken to Adams since he took office, but won’t share the content of their conversation.
“Aggressive policing is something I totally oppose,” she said.
In any case, the mayor, a former police captain, clearly articulates both the urgency of curbing crime and the sensitivity of bringing back these units.
They do have a new name, Neighborhood Safety Teams, and the police department says its members will be screened, wear body cameras and modified uniforms emblazoned with NYPD as well as their names and precincts, instead of street clothes.
“We are producing here an elite group of men and women with specialized training and skill sets to zero in on gun violence,” Adams said.
When the department rolled the new unit out last week at a news event they featured an interracial group of officers led by a black, female sergeant, a picture that made both the News and The Post.
Dramatizing the significance of the moment both newspapers lead their opinion sections Sunday with articles on the resurrection of the units, although with rather different perspectives.
“Old Wine, New Bottles?” asked the Daily News.
“Secret Weapon,” shared the Post, “Mayor Adams’ popularity rests entirely on the success of his anti-gun unit.”
“The new units will continue some of the old methods and even ramp them up because the car stops work,” Professor Greg Donaldson of John Jay College wrote in that Daily News piece, describing the tactic of patrolling in an unmarked car and then stopping suddenly to surprise a suspect, as the four officers did to Amadou Diallo. “But wait and watch: Initial gratitude at safer streets will inevitably give way to irritation and then anger at such tactics.”
“I Am Concerned”
Mrs. Diallo appreciates the importance of reversing the rise in crime. Indeed, she notes that it is the same communities who suffer the worst ravages of gun and gang violence and the dangers of excessive use of force by police.
“Eric Adams, I know him personally,” Mrs. Diallo says, “I know that he will try anything to help him do what he’s supposed to do. But I am concerned about how this new thing is going to play out. Because my vision and my hope for young people in neighborhoods is for them to be treated right.”
To her that means an end to aggressive policing and a focus on education, job opportunities, mental health programs and all the other services that will offer an alternative path to gangs, guns and crime.
“Services will serve better than aggressive policing,” she said. “more than just being there to guard people and to fix people and to look for suspicious activity. If they’re successful in combining different services for young people it will be much better. Like everybody, I don’t want either police violence or gang violence to happen to any parents.”
She stays in close touch with a circle of other families who have lost members to police violence. Just last Friday, while staying on the West Side with her friend Emily Goodman, the legal activist and retired judge of the New York State Supreme Court, Mrs. Diallo made an unannounced appearance at the every Friday “Say Their Names” vigil at 96th street and Broadway, organized by the group Rise and Resist to remember the casualties of police violence.
Diallo, a gem dealer before her son’s death, devotes all her time now to the foundation she created in his memory: https://www.amadoudiallo.com The first word’s on the foundation’s website are the last words he spoke to her before his death: “Mom, I am going to college,” announcing his plan to enroll at CUNY.
The foundation has given 57 scholarships to support young, mostly immigrant kids who are pursuing the education Amadou did not get to pursue.
Her son’s death, she notes, was “a catalyst” for the abolition of the street crime units. Yet, deaths have continued even after the units were disbanded.
“The aggressive tactics that they were using, that was the cause for my son to be killed,” she said. “And I will always advocate for change. So, my hope is that history will not be repeated ... that is something that is tied to my son’s legacy. And what I want for New Yorkers, is for the best change that can happen to prevent the tragedy that happened. That caused me to lose my first one. And that caused so much pain and changed my life forever.”
“Like everybody, I don’t want either police violence or gang violence to happen to any parents.” Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo