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.

AP/ The New York Times

By Ullrich Fichtner in New York

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!"

First a policewoman and then four or five other officers pursue Kennedy with their 9mm Glock service weapons, with a trigger pull of 12 pounds, held in both hands. Kennedy backs off from the officers, heading south into the eternal twilight of the streets of Manhattan. He has four-and-a-half minutes left to live.

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.

The traffic has vanished from the broad avenue, and it is only police cars that hurry back and forth. Seen from Times Square, the crowd led by Kennedy is moving to the left of the center of the street. He now has two dozen or more police officers on his heels, most of them in uniform and a few in plain clothes, and all have their weapons drawn. They are accompanied by an amorphous swarm of eager witnesses, whose comments can be heard in the various clips. "Do you see this shit?" one person asks.

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.

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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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