Briefing Paper No. 56

“We Own the Night:” Amadou Diallo’s Deadly Encounter with New York City’s Street Crimes Unit

Executive Summary

Amadou Diallo died in a hail of police bullets in February 1999. The police thought Diallo was a serial rapist who was drawing a pistol against them, but Diallo was an innocent man who was unarmed. The incident has sparked a heated debate over the crime-fighting policies of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the New York City Police Department.

To understand what has been happening in New York City in recent years, one must examine the relationship between a police officer’s authority to search suspects and the legal doctrine of false imprisonment. The legal shield of false imprisonment has been sharply curtailed in recent years by Supreme Court rulings that have expanded the circumstances under which police officers can “stop and frisk” persons.

In 1994 Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton ordered their elite Street Crimes Unit to start confiscating illegal weapons from pedestrians. The plainclothes outfit embarked upon an aggressive campaign of stopping and frisking city residents, often illegally. Wealthy and middle-class residents were not affected by the crackdown because the police chose to exercise their search powers in the poorer neighborhoods where the crime rates were higher. Minorities bore the brunt of the crackdown, and their cries of police harassment were largely written off.

The killing of Amadou Diallo was neither an act of racist violence nor some fluke accident. It was the worst-case scenario of a dangerous and reckless style of policing. Policymakers should dispense with confrontational stop-and-frisk tactics before more innocent people are injured or killed.

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Timothy Lynch is director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.