justice

20 Years After the NYPD Killing of Amadou Diallo, His Mom Asks: What’s Changed?

A mural on Wheeler Avenue created in memory of Amadou Diallo.
A mural on Wheeler Avenue created in memory of Amadou Diallo. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

Kadiatou Diallo often wonders what her son Amadou’s life would be like if he were still alive.

What if he had gone inside his apartment just a few moments before four NYPD officers drove down the Bronx’s Wheeler Avenue shortly after midnight on February 4, 1999? Or what if he had been anywhere else, doing anything other than simply standing in front of the multifamily brick building where the 23-year-old lived in Soundview?

Maybe he would have married Bente, the woman he told his mother he was interested in the last time they spoke on the phone, five days earlier.

Perhaps he would have become a teacher, like he’d dreamed of. She is sure he would have started college classes soon after that call. During their final conversation, he told her he had saved $9,000 for tuition.

“I remember his excitement on the phone,” Diallo, 59, told THE CITY recently, ahead of the 20th anniversary of her son’s killing. “He was so happy that day. He said, ‘I am ready. I’m going to college.’”

It’s been two decades since she got the other call at her home in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, informing her that a car full of police officers had fatally shot her son — shy, smart, sensitive Amadou — near his home. She’d later learn that the officers thought her son had a gun. It was actually his wallet.

The encounter ended in a torrent of 41 bullets, shaking the city and galvanizing Diallo into a life of activism.

“I want this day to be historic for all the victims of the world so that such a thing will not happen again,” she told a Chicago audience during part of a multi-city speaking tour just two months later, in April 1999, the New York Amsterdam News reported at the time.

Twenty years full of similar speeches and demonstrations later, she remains committed to that mission. But she said her work has shown her just how little progress has been made to reform policing. Though the NYPD reports that officers are making fewer stops on city streets — down from nearly 700,000 in 2011 to the roughly 11,000 reported in 2017 — police are still stopping more blacks and Latinos than their white counterparts.

Data shows that the level of racial disparity in these stops is worse than it was more than 20 years ago.

And New Yorkers are still dying as a result of police action, Diallo noted, often with little legal consequence.

“Every year, I’m comforting another family,” she told THE CITY. “I know one mother from Guinea also who had her son killed by the NYPD. I comforted her, I comforted other moms, like Eric Garner’s mom and Sean Bell’s mother. Every year, all these families.”

Kadiatou Diallo also is a force within her own family, said her niece Aissatou Diallo. In 1999, when her younger cousin was killed, Aissatou was new to the Bronx, living on the second floor of the same apartment building as Amadou. At the time of the shooting, she was a few months pregnant and in Georgia visiting family.

“Even to kill an animal you don’t need 41 bullets,” she said, remembering the moment she’d learned the news. “I don’t get it, I still don’t.”

As soon as she found out about Amadou’s death, Aissatou returned to 1157 Wheeler Avenue, where the lobby walls were disfigured by the bullet holes, she said. Imagining her cousin sprawled and dying on the lobby floor, she fainted.

Amadou Diallo and his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, in Malaysia in 1991.
Amadou Diallo and his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, in Malaysia in 1991. Photo: Courtesy of Kadiatou Diallo.

“At that point things were really bad for me,” she told THE CITY, in her first English-language interview on the subject. “I was in pain but I didn’t speak one word of English. I couldn’t express myself.”

Kadiatou Diallo, who now lives in Maryland, has returned to New York to mark the 20th anniversary of her son’s death. The foundation she launched in his honor has sponsored a youth empowerment event at Bronx Community College today, Saturday, February 2— an event in step with her son’s dream of becoming an educator.

Painful Memories Linger Years Later

Since its founding, the Amadou Diallo Foundation has given scholarship aid to 30 students of African descent or who have immigrated to the U.S. from Africa, Diallo said.

And while she says meeting and working with students has helped her heal, memories of February 4, 1999, remain.

“Losing a child — I don’t wish that to any mother,”  she said. “Unfortunately, many have had to go through that pain like me, having to see their children be killed in a very, very similar way. It’s not something that you can remove and put aside. No. It’s always with you, you live with it, you breathe with that, you sleep with that, you wake up with the bad feeling. I don’t care how many years pass, if you live 20 years later, like me, or 50 years later, like other moms. It’s the same.”

People who live near Amadou Diallo’s former home and members of the Guinean immigrant community told THE CITY that tense interactions with officers persist.

One mother cautions her grade school-age sons to always take their hands out of their pockets when they pass the police. Another woman has drilled the phrase “can I see your ID?” into the minds of family members who do not speak English.
The Diallo killing has remained a cautionary tale for many here: If you’re ever stopped by a police officer, comply or risk death.

“I have only sons,” said Aissatou, the cousin, who still lives in the Bronx. Her oldest, born the year Amadou died, will turn 20 in August.

“I tell them that as a black kid in this country, you have to be careful, you have to comply. And I know the police are here to help us, but if some of them kill us you can’t help but think they are all the same.”

“[The police] said he [Diallo] was reaching for something in his pocket, so from that time, from my perspective, it was like, whenever you see a cop, don’t put your hand in your pocket, maybe that will keep you safe,” said Asuma Jalloh, who runs Guineans Succeeding in America, an organization for young students and professionals who emigrate from the country.

“And if you ever, ever, ever meet a cop, if they say, ‘Put your hands up,’ put them up and try to follow whatever they ask you to do,” the 26-year-old added.

“Everyone tells you, ‘Be careful,’” said Abdourahamane Diallo, 27, who is not related to Amadou but shares the common Guinean surname.

He remembers the advice many gave him when he left for New York: “If the police stop you, just be careful, or they might shoot you like Amadou Diallo,” he said. “That mentality is still in the Guinean community.”

Shooting Exposed a Divide

Beyond its effect on African immigrants, the Diallo killing — and the eventual acquittal of the four white police officers who shot him — clawed open a nasty abscess in New York.

Among the many feelings that oozed out was rage over the response from the city, led by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to the shooting. Giuliani, at one point, dismissed protests as “silly.”

The anger reverberated nationally — “Bruce Springsteen wrote a f—ing song about it,” noted Robert Gangi, who heads the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP).

The killing also turned a spotlight on the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics, long condemned by black and Latino communities and civil liberties advocates as racially biased and unconstitutional.

“His murder was in the context of a stop,” said Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, a civil rights attorney with The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit group that advocates for policing and criminal justice reform. “It was a horrible example of the officers thinking black people pose a threat, even for movements that are innocuous and benign.”

After a series of legal challenges to the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk that began with the March 1999 class action suit Daniels v. City of New York, a federal judge finally ruled in 2013 that stop-and-frisk as practiced by city police amounted to an unconstitutional “policy of indirect racial profiling” of black and Latino New Yorkers. An independent monitor was ordered to oversee reforms to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices as part of the ruling in that case, Floyd v. City of New York.

That same year, the New York City Council passed the Community Safety Act, which created an NYPD Inspector General, a watchdog who can make nonbinding recommendations to the department. And last year, city legislators passed the Right to Know Act, which mandated that police officers must identify themselves during stops.

Things changed within the Police Department, too: The NYPD’s notorious, 300-plus-member Street Crimes Unit — which officers Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss, and Richard Murphy all belonged to when they shot and killed Diallo — was eventually disbanded. A 1999 report from then-state attorney general Eliot Spitzer found that between January 1998 and March 1999, the SCU made more stops than any other single, non-precinct-based command. More than 60 percent of those stopped were black.

Even Amid Reforms, Problems Persist

NYPD training around street stops has also improved, civil rights lawyers, community members, and reform advocates who spoke with THE CITY agreed. Among other things, the department has instituted a new performance evaluation system for its patrol officers, and tested and implemented new auditing methods for stops, the monitor’s latest report notes.

But problems persist. Since 1999, more than 200 people have been killed by NYPD officers, according to Police Department records and criminal justice reform groups.

Legal advocates who spoke with THE CITY noted that very few police officers have been convicted in connection with these deaths, even in the rare event that they are charged.

Borchetta, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the ongoing stop-and-frisk remedial process, concedes that “turning a big ship takes time.” The joint efforts of the NYPD, the monitor, and the Floyd plaintiffs to reform stop-and-frisk are ongoing, 20 years after the NYPD’s use of the tactic was first challenged in federal court in Daniels.

“Policing still has a very big race problem,” said Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and lead counsel on both the Floyd and Daniels cases. “There’s still an overwhelming amount of abuse and mistreatment of communities of color by law enforcement and that’s still happening in New York, and it still happens everywhere else around the country.”

According to an analysis of NYPD data done by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the NYPD reported 10,861 stops in 2017, down from a peak of 685,000 in 2011. The data still shows a consistent racial disparity. And local defense attorneys and the independent monitor report that many police interactions with the public are not counted, and that underreporting could undermine the NYPD’s efforts to comply with court orders.

In a statement to THE CITY, the NYPD said the decline in stops “reflects the deliberate shift in NYPD strategic focus over the past several years to precise, surgical targeting of crime and criminals.”

The statement added that the department continues “to refine tactics to ensure that every stop is appropriately documented and meets constitutional standards.”

Gangi, of PROP, said the ongoing disparities illustrate that “nothing of any significance has changed since the Diallo incident.”

Today, Kadiatou Diallo is focused on honoring her son’s memory — by fighting for change in the hope that other families will not experience the same wrenching loss she has.

“Nobody wants to do this. In fact my family … they felt that I was giving too much of me,” she said. “But for Amadou, nothing is too much. I’ve dedicated my life, in a way, to have his legacy crystallized. Today, his story is in the museum [the National Museum of African American History and Culture] And his story is on the street, on Wheeler Avenue, his name is there on the street. And his name is in the history books.

“I think he didn’t die in vain.”

This story was originally published in Intelligencer at nymag.com.