This Day In History: February 4

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Plainclothes officers of the New York Police Department’s Street Crime Unit fire 41 shots at unarmed Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, killing him on the steps of his apartment building shortly after midnight on February 4, 1999. Diallo’s killing sparked a public outcry and eventually resulted in the shuttering of the SCU, but the four officers who shot him were found not guilty of his murder.

Officers Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy were all members of the SCU, a special plainclothes unit of the NYPD that had earned plaudits from others in law enforcement. At the time of the shooting, the SCU was already involved in controversy: in January, two SCU officers had fired eight shots at Russell “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Jones of the Wu Tang Clan, falsely accusing him of having fired at them when it was later revealed he had been holding a cell phone, not a gun. 

The Diallo incident was similar: as he stood on the stoop of his building in the Bronx, the four officers mistakenly identified Diallo as a suspect—they claimed to have confused him for a serial rapist, but at other times suggested they had identified him as a mugger or drug dealer. Whatever their reasoning, the officers, who were dressed as civilians, shouted at Diallo to show his hands. Diallo apparently reached into his pocket instead, pulling out his wallet as he attempted to run for the safety of his building. Carroll shouted to his fellow officers that Diallo had a gun. The officers later stated that they warned Diallo before opening fire on him; however, a witness testified that they did not give warning before firing at him 41 times, and that many of the shots were fired after he had already fallen to the ground. Nineteen shots hit Diallo, who died within minutes.

The killing incensed much of the public, to the extent that the officer’s trial for reckless endangerment and second-degree murder was moved to Albany. On February 25, 2000, the jury found the four officers not guilty of all charges. Diallo’s father, Saikou Diallo, called the verdict “the second killing” of his son, while former New York City Mayor David Dinkins warned “This will send the wrong message to those members of the Street Crime Unit who walk around saying, ‘We own the night.’” The killing did lead to an investigation of the SCU and its subsequent disbandment. Diallo’s family filled a civil wrongful death suit against the city and eventually received $3 million. 

Diallo’s killing has inspired and been referenced in works by a number of musicians and artists, including Public Enemy, Wyclef Jean, Bruce Springsteen and the Strokes. All four officers remained with the NYPD. Boss, who had previously shot another Black suspect dead in 1997, was promoted to sergeant in 2015.