An Unnecessary Death in New York: Police Killing Highlights Flaws of 'Zero Tolerance'
In midtown Manhattan, police officers shot and killed an African-American man in August after he had walked across Times Square waving a kitchen knife. His last moments tell the story of a broken law enforcement system in New York City.
Darrius Kennedy's date with death begins at 3 p.m., in front of the Stars & Stripes of the neon American flag in New York City's Times Square. Kennedy, a sturdy man with long Rasta braids, is wearing a white shirt with cut-off sleeves, faded jeans and light-colored shoes, and he is skipping backwards toward Seventh Avenue, waving an IKEA kitchen knife. He is going to die, a pedestrian shouts: "They're going to kill you, brother!"
Officers quickly seal off Seventh Avenue using police tape, and the first squad cars come hurtling down the avenues, their sirens howling. Pedestrians stumble through the blurred images documented by tourists running toward what they see as an adventure, whipping out their smartphones and cameras, hoping to capture a manhunt on video, while Kennedy continues to skip down the streets.
A Classic American Divide
The discussion that takes place in the aftermath of the shooting will divide cleanly along age-old American lines. Some will make snap judgments, in web forums, letters to the editor and call-in radio programs. "Gotcha!" they'll write, "another bites the dust," and "he deserved it." They'll lionize the police officers, calling them "New York's finest," praising their efforts to provide security in the big city. They'll ridicule the victim, calling him a crazy, knife-wielding pothead -- a foolish African American.
Others will ask anxious questions. They'll wonder whether, in this troubled America, it's even possible to just mourn, even if only for a day. They'll want to know why a few dozen police officers couldn't deal with someone like Kennedy in other ways. Why is it, one man asks, that escaped zoo animals are immobilized with tranquilizer darts, while a human being in New York is simply and ruthlessly shot to death in broad daylight?
Kennedy's sister will be quoted as saying that her brother was a talented musician, a man who undoubtedly had his problems, and yet, she will say: "They could have shot him in the leg." His aunt says that her nephew was a "loner," and that people are spreading all kinds of lies about him. She insists that he was a good man, and that he wasn't a bum.
Kennedy has picked a grotesque backdrop for his death. His short journey begins on brightly lit and eternally noisy Times Square, near the Minskoff Theater and ABC television headquarters, where huge electronic billboards advertise Broadway musicals like "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins," as well as some of the world's most recognizable brand names, like Coca-Cola, Samsung and Heineken. News headlines flicker across illuminated panels as big as tennis courts.
Times Square, diagonally sliced in half by Broadway, sees an average of 1.6 million pedestrians a day. It's Aug. 11, a Saturday. The streets are devoid of office workers but filled with the usual weekend crowds. Day laborers dressed in Mickey Mouse and Elmo costumes stand at intersections, where tourists photograph them in return for pocket change, the "Naked Cowboy" is singing and playing his guitar and steam rises from the carts of food vendors. Kennedy and his pursuers gradually move south along the avenue, from 44th to 43rd to 42nd Street, Kennedy hopping along in front of them, making small, bouncy jumping moves like a cornered boxer, while the police officers, tense and vigilant, cautiously follow him at a distance.
No Police Reports in New York
A few hours later, New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly says that the police response was "by the book." Mayor Michael Bloomberg says: "He had a knife and he was going after people." But the videos uploaded to YouTube, and there are many of them, don't seem to support the statements made by the mayor and Kelly. They also don't show the police officers trying to subdue Kennedy with pepper spray, which they claimed they did four to six times.
There are no police reports in New York. There is, however, police spokesman Paul Browne, who doesn't say much that's useful, and there are police reporters. Sometimes they uncover valuable information, and sometimes they don't. To them, Kennedy's case is merely that of a bum who got shot to death. The headline in the New York Post will read: "He Got His Wish."
The New York Police Department (NYPD) has its motto painted onto the sides of its squad cars, three guiding principles for the 36,000 men and women serving on the force: Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect. The NYPD Patrol Guide states, under Regulation 203-12, that the NYPD "recognizes the value of all human life and is committed to respecting the dignity of every individual." The rule also states that police officers "shall not use deadly physical force against another person unless they have probable cause to believe they must protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious physical injury."
Kennedy keeps moving. He crosses 42nd Street, passing the Ernst & Young building and the 42nd Street subway station, where lines N, Q, R, 1, 2, 3 and 7 intersect. Toward 41st Street, the fronts of buildings are covered with advertising for the new Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises." On weekdays, office workers stand in the shadow of entranceways, smoking. Tour busses make their stops, and ticket sellers in red boleros pull passersby into their businesses. Those are normal days.
Three Minutes Left to Live
But at about 3 p.m. on Saturday, it is clear that this is no normal day -- there is no one standing in the doorways. The area is shut down because of a man with a knife -- one with a 6-inch and not a 12-inch blade, as the newspapers and TV stations will report, because they include the handle in their incorrect measurement.
Kennedy, a 51-year-old who looks younger than his actual age, bounces along in front. At first, he turns his back on the police officers every few meters, looking as haughty as a torero turning his back on a bull. But now he is only striding backwards, keeping an eye on his pursuers through the round, green lenses of his metal-rimmed glasses. He has three minutes left to live.
- Part 1: Police Killing Highlights Flaws of 'Zero Tolerance'
- Part 2: The Trouble with 'Zero Tolerance'
- Part 3: False Reports of a 'Times Square Ninja'
- Part 4: 'I Always Told Him the Knife Would Get Him in Trouble'
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles