An Unnecessary Death in New York Police Killing Highlights Flaws of 'Zero Tolerance'

AP/ The New York Times

By Ullrich Fichtner in New York

Part 3: False Reports of a 'Times Square Ninja'

By the time he crosses 40th Street, Kennedy is being pursued by about 30 police officers, both on foot and in squad cars, and they're making a huge commotion. The air is filled with the crackle of announcements and the short bursts of police sirens. People are following along on both sides of the avenue like sports fans. Their numbers are difficult to estimate, but some of the videos give the impression that it could be hundreds. It's certainly several dozen, and the crowd continues to grow along the way, egged on by a herd instinct and paying no heed to the potential for danger.

The police usually have special units for cases like this. In their jargon, he is an "emotionally deranged person," or "EDP," and the type of unit that would normally deal with EDPs is called an Emergency Service Unit (ESU). Its arsenal includes such "nonlethal" material as batons, tasers, shields and water cannons.

By now, though, Kennedy has been walking backwards, away from the police, for at least three minutes, and there is still no ESU in sight. No one will explain how it is possible that, three blocks from one of the world's busiest public spaces, the NYPD is incapable of deploying a special unit within three minutes. In fact, there will be no explanations at all. The NYPD doesn't respond to SPIEGEL's inquiries or answer written lists of questions submitted.

What is known about the day of Kennedy's death is that a large number of police officers, armed with pistols and out of their depth, are pursuing a single man with a knife. They have no batons or tasers. Supervisors, officers above the rank of sergeant, have these nonlethal weapons, and ideally there would be one supervisor for every eight officers. But on this day there doesn't appear to be a single supervisor within the large group of police officers pursuing Kennedy.

They've already walked five blocks. It's getting close to 3 p.m., the crowd of people in their wake is growing larger, and the disruption to city life becomes more and more intolerable. This can't go on much longer. Finally, at about 38th Street, Kennedy makes another wrong move.

He leaves the center of the avenue, the width of which has protected him until now, and he bounces to the left, toward the sidewalk. Soon he'll be walled in on one side. Throughout the whole ordeal, he looks like a defiant child more than anything else. What's going through his head? Why doesn't he just drop the knife? How is this game supposed to end?

The police and the papers will portray him as mentally disturbed, as an unemployed outsider, a homeless man and a drug-addicted loser with a criminal record. Even the New York Times, straying from its declared policy of only printing verifiable news, quotes dubious eyewitnesses, who contradict one another and apparently confuse Kennedy with someone else. They turn him into the "Times Square Ninj," a man who often appeared on the square, wearing a Ninja costume and doing somersaults for tourists.

Neither Unemployed nor Homeless

Other news reports will state that Kennedy attacked people during his date with death, but that's a claim that not even the police is making. None of the reports will specify that all of the offences in his "criminal record" related to the possession of small amounts of marijuana. In fact, almost everything that will be written about Kennedy is full of holes or is flatly wrong.

In fact Kennedy, as he makes his way down Seventh Avenue, is neither unemployed nor homeless, nor does he do back flips for tourists. For the last six years, he has lived on the top floor of an apartment building on Third Avenue and 25th Street. It's an apartment reserved for the building superintendent, John Nyman, who uses it mainly for storage.

A long, messy hallway leads to the large apartment facing the street. Kennedy lived in one of the smaller rooms here. He had a deal with Nyman, who lives in his own apartment on 22nd Street: Instead of paying rent, Kennedy worked for Nyman and took care of his cats. When he wasn't working, Kennedy lifted weights in the basement, and when he sang along to a song on the radio, says Nyman, it was easy to hear that he was a musical person and had a nice voice.

In an earlier life, back in the days of disco, Kennedy had been a professional musician. He played bass and, with a short haircut and sporting flashier clothes, he went on tour with various bands, sometimes even as far away as Asia. He was married and then got divorced in the 1990s. At some point, Kennedy stopped playing music. There isn't much else to be discovered about his life. He played basketball as a child, and he sang in the church choir in Hempstead, but that was long before he became the man with the Rasta braids, the man with the knife.

'He Was the Nicest Guy on Earth'

"You can believe me or not," says Nyman, a wiry man with blue eyes, as he stands on the street, smoking a cigarette, "but Darrius was the hardest, most diligent worker I've ever met in my life. And he was the nicest person I knew, the nicest guy on Earth." On the morning of that Saturday, when Kennedy went to Times Square, he and Nyman were standing around, drinking coffee together. They were friends, "and to this day, I still don't understand what happened up there."

Of course, Nyman did read the papers after the shooting, and he watched the videos and heard the police version of the story. He also heard the stories claiming that Kennedy had knocked over trashcans in Times Square and had threatened people with a screwdriver several years ago. "All I can say is that everyone who knew him, and that was a lot of people here, doesn't believe a word of that. I think the cops make up these things."

Since 9/11, says Nyman, New York as a whole has increasingly transformed itself into a city with a "medieval concept" of life. "Darrius smoked a joint? Okay, so what? If we were in Ohio, the police officers would have driven him home and let him off with a warning."

Kennedy had a lot to do in the neighborhood. He was a handyman in 11 buildings, repairing drains and washing machines, bleeding radiators, and cleaning pipes, windows and toilets. He always worked on weekdays and often on weekends, and according to Nyman, he was always on time and "completely reliable." A Ukrainian couple that works as janitors around the corner tells the same stories. They are mourning his death. "He's missed," says Nyman.

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onegai-shimas 10/18/2012
1. Sad topic - but ...
yes. The subject is a tragic one, a sad one. It might seem cold, to mention it as a (first) reaction to the news, but when I realized that an article in spiegel-online, that some RSS feeder brought to my smartfone .. touched me. Some man, that I never heard of before behaved ... well, strange ... and was shot by policemen & women, that I do not know either. All that happened in a place half way round the world. And the story touched, because ... it took a couple of seconds to realize the reason ... because the article belongs into the top quality percent of journalism. This level of journalistic craftsmenship has become rare. Thanks for that. And it might be a sign, that the times they are achanging.... I am obviously one of very few to notice and the only one to take the effort to give this feedback.
retarded-freak 10/19/2012
It's just the USA's new flair for social hygiene, a return to Victorianism, order and ordure. The tourists were all well-scrubbed with expensive bars of soap and their camera lenses were cleaned with alcohol. Everyone was sanitary, and a potential germ was eradicated. They were attracted by blood, which seemed strangely human and possibly dirty. Afterwards, everyone went to their condos and hotels, brushed their teeth, and washed their hands.
jas88 10/20/2012
3. Another unnecessary death from clinging to things you shouldn't
Another of those cases where either doing something utterly trivial or even doing nothing at all would have saved one or more lives: if he had simply dropped the knife, things would have been very different. Like the Russian (Aeroflot 593) and French (Air France 447) airliners which crashed with pilots clinging desperately to controls in situations they didn't properly understand, simply letting go would have allowed the situation to calm down (the Aeroflot Airbus still had a working autopilot that would have levelled off automatically; the French one may or may not have recovered from the stall otherwise, but certainly didn't with the pilot fighting it). From the talk of hating the police and his previous drug offences, it does sound as if he wanted a fight; when they have guns and you don't, that can really only end one way unless you're bright enough to give up.
democratsramshield 10/20/2012
4. Please read my article about the Darrius Kennedy tragedy
I quoted this Spiegel story in my blog diary at the Daily Kos. While I must confess to being disappointed in the lack of reaction my article received, I am hopeful that it has changed some minds. To that end I'd like to invite you to read my blog at the link below and to provide feedback at my email address below. Here is the URL address for my blog about the tragedy of Darrius Kennedy as being intertwined with the history of racism dating back to slavery in the United States. A history which we Americans to date sadly have never owned. Additionally like 59 million Americans, Darrius was medically uninsured and therefore unable to access mental health services. Therefore sadly I'm afraid that Darrius' tragedy will not be the last such tragedy in the United States. The truth is we Americans need the help of people of conscience from around the world. To that end please read my article at the link below. Thank you!
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