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Lethal Presumption (The Cornel Young case)     by Karen MacNutt

It was 1: 40 AM on a cold, January morning when the two uniformed police officers pulled into the parking lot of a popular hangout. They ere responding to a disturbance call their attention was quickly drawn t) a man standing in the parking lot waiving a gun around.

"Drop the gun," shouted the ofcers to Aldrin Diaz as they approached with their own guns drawn. Diaz complied. Then a second man, dressed in a raincoat, bolted through rhe shop door. He too had a drawn gun.

"Drop the gun, drop the gun," the officers ordered, but the second man ignored them. "Drop the gun ... " The officers fired even though the second an did not point his gun at them. The second suspect had failed to obey their order to "drop the gun." The gunman fell to the ground hit by three of the uniformed officers' shots. The police supervisor arrived. Other officers arrived. Finally someone checked on the man who had been shot. He was Cornel Young, Jr. a veteran police officer in Providence, Rhode Island. An ambulance took Young to a hospital where he died. Diaz, the man who had obeyed the police order to drop his gun, was charged with the murder of Young.

The mayor of Providence immediately appeared on television to proclaim the need for more gun control. Civil rights organizations demanded there be an investigation because Young was black and the two officers who had shot him were white. Civil rights activists, with some justification, claimed that "Profiling" and the systematic harassment of minorities was a police tactic used in Rhode Island.

Young was killed by prejudice, but it was not racial. He was killed by a climate of hate and fear of gun-owning, average citizens. He was killed by the fostering of an elitist attitude that is prevalent in some police departments.

What happened to Officer Young should be kept in mind by every security officer, every police officer, and every citizen who carries a gun lawfully. Had Young not been an officer, his death probably would have been covered up. Had the two uniformed officers been civilians, there is no question that they would have been immediately charged with first degree murder.

It is highly unlikely that Young pointed his gun at the uniformed officers or threatened them in any way. Thus, we can assume Young was shot, not because of what he did with his gun, but because he failed to obey the orders of the uniformed officers to drop his gun. The first suspect, Diaz, dropped his gun when ordered. He was not shot.

Was the shooting of Young by the officers justified? Police officers have a difficult job filled with unexpected dangers. Like firemen, they know a certain amount of risk comes with the job. Like firemen, they should be aware that the safety of the public comes before their own personal safety.

When in performance of their duty, police officers have no duty to retreat from danger before using deadly force. Like civilians, officers have the right to protect their own lives and the lives of others from serious bodily injury. Deadly force should not be used when making routine arrests. Further, warning shots should not be used. In urban areas such as where the Young shooting took place, warning shots are dangerous to bystanders and can cause a misunderstanding of events by other officers responding to the call.

The question of whether the Young shooting was justified or wrongful under the law has nothing to do with the morality of the situation. It has to do with whether or not the officers who shot Young are subject to criminal penalties under our system of law. In determining this, the actual facts are not as important as what the officers might reasonably have believed. That is, the state of mind of the officers is critical. Would a reasonable man in the position of the uniformed officers have had a reasonable belief that they or other persons were in danger of being killed or of being seriously injured by Young? Although Young's carrying of a gun was cause for caution by the other officers, it was not, and should not have been, considered probable cause to believe Young was violating the law. It is still lawful in Rhode Island for people who ate not wearing police uniforms to have handguns. On the other hand, the circumstances were such that the officers might have believed that Young and Diaz were engaged in mutual combat with guns. In those circumstances, the facts may have suggested to the officers that Diaz, being outside of the building was retreating and Young emerging from the building was the aggressor. A totality of facts not available at this writing is needed co determine if Young's conduct could have been so interpreted.

Under the laws governing assaults, even if you are the person originally attacked, if your attacker breaks off the fight and starts to leave, his assault is considered over. If you then pursue your former attacker, you become the aggressor. Shop owners who chase robbers into the street risk being mistaken for the "bad guy." Laws governing use of deadly force to prevent the escape of someone who has committed a crime are different in various states. Civilians who attempt to pursue a criminal run large risks not only from the criminal but also from the police.

In the Young incident, the uniformed officers had the obligation to use the minimum amount of force needed to accomplish their mission. Deadly force should only be used if necessary to protect the lives of the officers or civilians. It should only be used to accomplish an arrest in very limited circumstances such as when the crime is of a particularly serious and dangerous nature. The nature of the disturbance that night would not seem to have justified the police in shooting the suspect Young if they had not been in fear of their own safety or the safety of Diaz. The circumstances in which the use of deadly force is justified should be part of every officer's training. Unfortunately, too many police departments train their officers on pop up targets which contain "good guy" and "bad guy" targets. The officer is graded on how quick he can identify and shoot his target based upon the target's image, not on the target's conduct. Unfortunately for Young, a man in a raincoat holding a gun is a "bad guy" image. Police work is dangerous by its nature. It is difficult to second-guess police in a situation like this. It is hard to cast blame-yet this shooting was preventable had the officers been trained or supervised differently.

Young probably made the most serious mistake. He left the shop with his gun in hand. Being a police officer himself, he should have realized that the two uniformed officers would be on an adrenaline rush. He should have identified himself better upon emerging from the shop. His gun should have been carried in a non-threatening direction until such time as his brother officers realized who he was. He should have obeyed their command to drop his gun instantly) His training was faulty. Although there is no way of knowing what was going through his mind at the time we can make an educated guess.

He undoubtedly thought that be cause he was a police officer, he had the right and duty to pursue the troublemaker from the shop to the parking lot. Because he knew he was a "good guy" he thought the polio would support him. Because he was a police officer, he probably though he was entitled to have a gun. Be cause he was a police officer, he probably thought that commands directed at civilians did not apply to him. He probably developed a tunnel vision towards the man he was pursing and may never have realized the uniformed officers were talking to him He did not return their fire, so we know he either did not see them a all or knew they were "good guys.

Why didnot he drop his gun after the first shot was fired? Were the shots too close together for him to react? An inquest will have to determine that. Civilians and police officers who carry guns for defense should learn a umber of things from this.

1. Most of the time police officers responding to your request of help o not know who you are.

2. They will identify as the "bad guy" the person who appears to them be the most dangerous.

3. YOU MUST identify yourself immediately to the police.

4. You must follow their orders immediately without question in these circumstances.

S. You must force yourself to see he whole picture and not develop tunnel vision as to what is going on about you.

The responding officers also made mistakes which were a result of imroper training and attitude. Although not all the facts have come out at the time of this writing, some an be safely presumed.

The city either did not have a protocol for the prompt identification off-duty or plain clothes officers or the officers did not follow it. There was, however, a clear demonstration of a bias against civilians having guns. It vas clear from the mayor's comments hat the city administration did not like civilians having guns. It is also clear that the officers assumed the person with the gun was the bad guy. They also assumed it was alright to shoot to kill the person with the gun even though that person had not demonstrated hostile intent. It is fairly safe to assume that Officer Young did not point his gun at his fellow officers. It is fairly safe to assume that he did not ay anything threatening to his fellow officers. What did he do to cause the officers to shoot at him? He had a gun in his hand and he did not drop when told.

Did the officers give Young enough time to comply with their order? At some point shortly before the shooting the uniformed officers had to have taken their attention away from the first suspect to point their guns at Young. Indeed, the uniformed officers probably made the same mistake as Young. Their attention was probably totally focused on Diaz until Young emerged from the shop and their attention swung to Young. Young probably startled them because both officers shot at Young hitting him three times. While they were shooting at Young, Diaz remained uncovered and, had he and Young been "bad guys" working together, Diaz could have had a second gun with whim he could have shot the officers. The officers' tactics were bad. Their sense of time was undoubtedly distorted. Once again, it will be for the finders of fact to determine if the uniformed officers gave Young enough time to respond to their orders.

Were the uniformed officers looking at Young when they were yelling, "Drop your gun!"? Where were their guns pointed? Did their body language give Young even a clue that the uniformed officers were talking to him before they swung their guns around and fired?

The ultimate irony is that Diaz has been charged with murder in the first degree of Officer Young under the felony murder rule. Although Diaz complied with the orders of the uniformed officers and did not fire his gun, he will be prosecuted because the officers did not have the same level of self-control. Diaz undoubtedly knew that if he shot someone, he would face serious charges. He restrained his impulses. The officers, on the other hand, who should have had better training and control, did all the shooting. Under the felony murder rule if anyone, including your accomplice, dies as a result of your commission of a felony, you can be charged with first-degree murder. It makes no difference if the person died of a heart attack, or, as in this case, was killed by the police. The theory is that by your wrongful conduct you created the situation which led to the death and you should therefore be held accountable. There was no need for the uniformed officers to have shot Young three times. Indeed, as there is no reason to believe Young exhibited hostile intent towards the officers, there was no reason to shoot him at all.

The shooting was a direct result of the mind set being promoted that having a gun is probable cause for a police officer to stop you without any other act or wrongdoing on your part. It is the direct result of a mindset being promoted that the only purpose of a gun in the hands of a civilian is to kill and that all guns are bad. If you accept these positions, it is not difficult to accept the position that officers have the right to shoot anyone they think might have a gun. It should come as no surprise that of the six "friendly fire" killings of police officers in the last eight years, two took place in New York City and three took place in Washington, DC, where civilian ownership of guns is severely limited. If the attitude that anyone with a gun must be bad continues to be promoted by those with their own political agenda, we will see more cases such as that of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed West African immigrant whose only crime was that he was trying to get into his own apartment. Diallo was killed in his own doorway by a hail of 41 bullets fired by four New York City police officers who said they thought Diallo was armed. Although the officers were cleared of charges, one must be impressed by the magnitude of the officers' response to a mistaken belief

Civil rights leaders have complained that in Providence, the police did not treat the civilian community with the proper respect. Although some say the police attitude is anti-black, that is only part of the problem. Where police identify the entire civilian community as the enemy, there is distrust and public safety is not met. Those who promote civilian disarmament, foster the bunker mentality that has led to these tragic and needless deaths. It is only in those communities where the police and citizens respect and work with each other that public safety is improved. We must all work for such communities.


This article was reprinted from Women&Guns May-Jun, 2000, Copyright © 2000, Karen MacNutt