February 13, 2015

On February 5, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year old man from Guinea, was shot and killed by New York City police officers in the vestibule of his apartment building. On the 16th anniversary of his death, a panel of distinguished guests convened at SIPA for “Improving Police-Community Relations,” a conference focused on the complex and evolving relationship between police officers and civilians in New York City.

SIPA co-sponsored the event—part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on Race and Policy—with the Amadou Diallo Foundation (ADF). Dean Merit E. Janow welcomed the audience; Professor David N. Dinkins, the former New York City mayor who has served as ADF’s board chair since its founding, and Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, both offered opening remarks.

Ms. Diallo explained how ADF, which honors the memory of her son, can bridge law enforcement and the public. She said, “We are here to increase compassion, find common solutions, and help this city heal.” Ms. Diallo added that she believes that the public needs law enforcement.

The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who served as a police officer before entering politics. Adams stressed the need for three different approaches to the issue, calling for people who will “agitate, negotiate, and legislate” to create change.

Referring to events in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year, Adams said, “You can’t say black lives matter while burning down black business.” One audience member took exception with this claim, arguing that these issues are being discussed precisely because of the actions that took place in Ferguson. Adams’s counterargument drew on his personal experience: one way to drive solutions, he said, is to “become a cop—that is how change [happens].”

Professor Ester Fuchs moderated the conference panel, through which panelists offered varied and sometimes opposing views. Adams argued for the use of body cameras in policing; others noted that the Eric Garner case in Staten Island did not result in any indictment despite videotaped evidence.

Panelist Graham Weatherspoon, an ADF board member and a former New York City police officer, said he became a police officer because he didn’t want someone else doing a job for which he was better suited. He described how racism and classism remain key considerations, but added “It’s not just happening to black people, it’s also happening to white people. It’s happening to people.”

Norman Siegel, a civil-rights lawyer and ADF’s longstanding board treasurer, discussed what he called three common myths around police brutality: first, that it’s a rare occurrence; second, that it is not a race issue; and third, that it is a problem of “a few bad apples.” Siegel argued for legal solutions including strengthening civilian commissions, extending the statute of limitations of civil rights cases, and establishing an independent statewide prosecutor focused on eliminating police brutality and corruption.

All panelists agreed that work is needed to remediate the police-community relations crisis. Following the event, ADF released a statement calling for progress in five key areas:

• Renewing respect and trust between the NYPD and community residents, especially residents of color

• Removing stereotypes from Police Academy and precinct training

• Creating a statewide permanent independent special prosecutor for allegations of police misconduct

• Increasing racial and gender diversity at the NYPD, particularly in management

• Increasing police precincts’ transparency and resources for community residents

 

Pictured: Eric Adams, Kadiatou Diallo