The murder of Police Officer Randolph Holder last week on the FDR Drive should haunt New Yorkers, just as the tragic killing of Amadou Diallo in February of 1999 does.
Officer Holder was killed because a repeat offender with an illegal firearm allegedly shot a plain-clothes cop.
Diallo was shot to death in a fusillade of 41 shots in the darkened vestibule of his building by plain clothes NYPD Street Crimes Unit (SCU) officers who suspected Diallo was a criminal. When he reached for his wallet, cops thought it was a firearm and opened fire.
But both men died because, as most managers and every statistician knows, extraordinary performance is only rarely scalable.
As with major league baseball, the New York City Marathon, or nearly any other activity, the exceptional performance of those at the far right side of the bell curve cannot be replicated. When NYPD commanders tried to scale-up the then-extraordinary performance of the SCU in 1997; they failed.
The failure was predictable.
Before it was finally disbanded by Ray Kelly in 2002, the SCU – even then still less than 2 percent of the NYPD cops – was reportedly responsible for 40 percent of NYPD gun seizures in the city.
But in the years before Diallo was shot, the SCU had tripled in size, from just 137 cops to 438 in 1997. (There were 380 in the unit by February of 1999, shortly after Diallo had been killed.)
Before the expansion, the SCU recruited its members among highly qualified veteran cops, who were all closely supervised in their activities. The SCU’s commander, then-Captain Richard Savage, who vigorously opposed the expansion, was quoted as saying, “I used the selection process as a secret tool; personally interviewed everyone. I looked at arrest activity. They had to be highly recommended by their commanding officer”.
Mr. Savage also personally reviewed each prospective SCU recruit’s personnel file for evidence that the kind of “energetic” street cops he wanted were not the “abusive” street cops he feared: departmental charges, shootings, or civilian complaints could easily eliminate even highly recommended veteran cops from consideration. “ I wanted people with no departmental charges in the police trial room, no prior shootings and no civilian complaints,” Mr. Savage was quoted as saying.
The few successful SCU recruits–just 50 percent of the few even considered — or, “The Best of the Finest”–worked side-by-side, every day, with veteran members of the unit who served as mentors and instructors. The small, elite band of SCU cops were said to be able to determine if someone was carrying a firearm from numerous “tells”: an individual’s gait, their composure when observed, how they held their hands, how they adjusted their trousers…
But when the 1997 SCU expansion occurred, veteran cops in the unit were concerned that so many new cops were being put on the street too quickly. When the unit commander protested the expansion, he was promoted out of the unit. Of the four officers in the Diallo killing, three were reported to have had prior shootings–all adjudged justified–and civilian complaints–all unsubstantiated. Three had reportedly been in the SCU only three months.
The NYPD should establish a new, small, elite, SCU with both uniformed and plain-clothes officers that reflects today’s diverse NYPD force of whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos and women.
By the time the SCU was finally disbanded in 2002, it bore little resemblance to the elite unit it had once been. Almost immediately after the Diallo shooting, SCU cops were put in uniform and the unit itself was broken into eight separate units and put under the control of borough commanders.
After the SCU was disbanded, what had been the gun-seizing specialty of an elite few became a daily task for every cop. Stops increased by 600 percent, from 97,296 in 2002, when the expanded SCU was disbanded, to 685,724 stops in 2011. Allegations of abuse and racial profiling–in 2011 87 percent of the new stops were of blacks and Latinos–spiked.
Like most attempts to scale-up extraordinary success, expanding “stop question and frisk” failed; it ran out of control and became politically untenable. After a court ruled stop and frisk unconstitutional in August, 2013, stops had dropped to just 2,000 per week from 16,000 per week.
Today, shooting incidents in the city have increased about 10 percent since “stop, question and frisk” ended. There have been 893 shooting incidents by the first week of October 2015, up from 815 for the same period in 2013.
More importantly, the public perceives gun crime is increasing and street thugs think there is little risk to carrying a firearm. As Officer Holder’s mother, Princess Holder, was quoted, “I think Mayor [Bill] de Blasio should reconsider this stop-and-frisk because I think it’s gonna be a deterrent to these thugs who go around taking innocent people’s lives.”.
The NYPD should establish a new, small, elite, SCU with both uniformed and plain-clothes officers that reflects today’s diverse NYPD force of whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos and women, and hold them all to the same high standards of selection, training, and supervision that had existed in the SCU before the unit’s ill-conceived expansion in 1997. Each of the officers in uniform should be equipped with wearable cameras and audio recording devices to ensure that each stop is warranted, professional, and respectful to avoid allegations of racial profiling or abuse.
Amadou Diallo’s death was a tragedy. So was Officer Holder’s.
But we only compound their tragic losses if we continue to allow illegal firearms to go unchecked in our city because the NYPD made a poor management decision almost 20 years ago. We need to fix it.