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A glimpse at officer’s fear

February 21, 2000

No layman knows what it's like to be a police officer. No layman can feel the fear an officer feels. This includes Your Humble Servant.

At least to this layman, the testimony of Officer Sean Carroll, describing his actions on Feb. 4, 1999, when he fired 16 bullets at Amadou Diallo, demands attention and reflection.

We begin not with Carroll's spotting Diallo "slinking out of the vestibule" of his Bronx apartment building at 1157 Wheeler Ave., as Carroll testified, but with an event that occurred three years earlier: the 1996 fatal shooting of Bronx Street Crime Officer Kevin Gillespie by three young thugs.

When Carroll joined Street Crime the next year as part of the unit's three- fold expansion - an expansion that occurred over the protests of its former commander, who feared the officers would not be adequately screened or trained - Carroll's locker was near Gillespie's. Gillespie's locker had been turned into a "shrine," Carroll testified. He then began to cry.

Fast-forward to Feb. 4, when Carroll and three other Street Crime officers - each of the three in the unit less than six months, all four unfamiliar with the Bronx neighborhood they were covering - pass 1157 Wheeler Ave. in an unmarked car. Carroll sits in the passenger seat in front of Ed McMellon, Kenny Boss driving, the street deserted.

Carroll sees something over his right shoulder. A lone black man, he testifies, "looking up and down the street and stepping into the vestibule . . .He didn't want to be seen. . . I was trying to figure out what was going on." This was Diallo. Here is what Carroll says went through his mind about him: He could be a look-out for a push-in robbery team, although there was no report of such activity in the area. He "remarkably" resembled a rapist on whom they did have a report. Carroll later acknowledged the light in the vestibule was dim and that he couldn't clearly see Diallo.

He further acknowledged the resemblance to the suspect's sketch was "minimal." Subsequent testimony revealed the only resemblance between Diallo and the rapist was that both were black.

Carroll then tells Boss to back up the car. He jumps out, runs up the building steps toward Diallo, McMellon a step behind him. Both say they identify themselves as police, calling Diallo "Sir." (There are no witnesses to confirm or refute this.)

Carroll testified Diallo ignored commands to show his hands so that McMellon and he could see Diallo held no gun. Instead, Diallo turned back into the vestibule. Carroll pursued him. Carroll testified he feared a barricade and hostage situation if Diallo escaped inside.

Contrary to the belief of most Bronx residents (according to a poll the officers' attorneys presented as justification to move the case to Albany), there is no evidence Carroll or anyone else set out that night to kill Diallo. "He probably hasn't gotten a good night's sleep since the shooting," a former top police official said of Carroll. "He may not get a good night's sleep for the rest of his life."

Rather, every assumption Carroll made about Diallo that night was incorrect. His every instinct - and instinct is what Street Crime Unit officers prided themselves on - failed him. It apparently did not occur to Carroll that Diallo might live in the building. It never occurred to him Diallo might not speak English. Nor, apparently, did it occur to him that he and McMellon might have frightened Diallo. Or that the reason Diallo reached into his pocket to remove his wallet might have been because he feared Carroll and McMellon were about to rob him.

Instead, Carroll sees a young black man withdraw what Carroll describes as "a square, black object" from his pocket. He cries out, "Gun, gun," and the carnage begins.

Outing Pat.
Is First Deputy Pat Kelleher going to head corporate security at Merrill Lynch? The Wall Street firm's current security head, ex-Police Department Capt. Charlie Connolly, is said to be retiring this year, and overtures have been made to Kelleher.

Jim Wiggins, head of Merrill's corporate communications, cautions that Connolly has not announced retirement plans, nor has anyone been interviewed to succeed him. Kelleher's bud, Deputy Chief Tom Fahey, just back from vacationing with Pat, says, "He has no plans to leave the NYPD at this time."

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© 2000 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.