“Tragic, but not Criminal”: No Charges in NYPD Friendly Fire Death

By Michelle Chen Aug 15, 2009

It’s been a good couple of weeks for New York’s Finest. A Manhattan grand jury has cleared Officer Andrew P. Dunton of all criminal charges in the killing of his colleague, Omar Edwards. The announcement of the decision on Thursday evoked more weary anguish over the death of Edwards, a Black off-duty officer shot last May in a “friendly fire” confrontation with Dunton, a white undercover cop. The incident resonated with rising tensions about police brutality around the country, coming just a few months after the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant and a shootout in Oakland involving parolee Lovelle Mixon and four officers. But NYPD detective’s union President Michael Palladino, drawing a comparison with the controversial police killing of Sean Bell, called the incident “tragic, but not criminal.” As we’ve pointed out before, New York City police have a long history of both friendly fire and heavy aggression in communities of color. Whether the shooting reflects how officers are conditioned to act on racial stereotypes, or an institutional climate of hostility toward communities of color, incidents like the Edwards tragedy weave together the impacts of state-sanctioned racism both as a structural phenomenon and as a learned psychological impulse. According to the official account published by District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, as Edwards chased a person suspected of breaking into his car, Dunton yelled “Police, don’t move, drop the gun, drop the gun. At that point:

Edwards slowed, but did not come to a complete stop. In response to Officer Dunton’s commands he turned his body toward the Anti-Crime officers, making eye contact with Officer Dunton and pointing his gun at him. Officer Dunton fired six shots in very rapid succession, in two bursts that lasted a few seconds at most. As he was firing, he saw Officer Edwards turn his left side toward the [officers’ car], turn again, and fall face-down to the ground. According to a civilian witness, Officer Edwards rolled over on the ground before coming to rest on his back.

Now that Dunton is safe from criminal charges, the NYPD will begin its “internal review” of the incident—the first bureaucratic step toward a conclusion that many New Yorkers of color probably could have predicted the night Edwards died. Advocates in the community, including Rev. Al Sharpton and Congressman Charles Rangel, are demanding further independent investigation. The Final Call reported this week on a trend of undercover and non-uniformed officers of color winding up as targets of violence in the communities they are policing. De Lacy Davis of the New Jersey-based Black Cops Against Police Brutality (B-COPS) said that for people of color inside and outside the force, “Black and Latino people die at the hands of police departments disproportionately because of the culture of racism that permeates these departments nationally." According to the most recent data available, analyzed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, about nine in ten people caught in the path of NYPD bullets were Black or Latino. But the Department stopped keeping statistics on the race of shooting victims years ago. The NYPD has, however, generated plenty of other data on its activities. The NYCLU reported this week that according to “stop and frisk” records from the first half of 2009, “Police made more than 273,000 stops of completely innocent New Yorkers – the overwhelming majority of whom were black and Latino.” Though these people never got a formal charge or citation, their names and addresses are now stuck in the police department’s database—generating a statistical racial profile that feeds profiling on the street. As a result, said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, “The NYPD is, in effect, building a massive database of black and brown New Yorkers.” That database could soon swell even more, thanks to a $35 million grant of federal recovery funds to hire more officers. Edwards won’t get a chance to see those stimulus dollars at work in the city’s unrelenting fight against crime, though he has been "posthumously promoted" from rookie to first-grade detective. While the official narrative served to justify Dunton’s reaction to Edwards, the most revealing part of the DA’s report documents the seconds after Edwards fell: Upon approaching the body, Dunton was ordered by a fellow officer to “cuff the guy,” but Dunton “was in shock and managed to secure only one wrist.” Another officer took over and “finished the handcuffing.” How did the grand jury picture this scene? Officers moving toward Edwards with weapons drawn, as if the slain man still posed a danger. An order to cuff the body. Nervous hands fumbling to bind dead wrists. A mind reeling under the gravity of the duty to protect, and the weight of an inarticulable guilt. Moments later, detectives on the scene discovered that beneath Edwards’s sweatshirt was a Police Academy T-shirt emblazoned with his name. Had those words been visible when Edwards turned to face his pursuers, would they have paused? What would the officers have seen first? The police emblem, or just a Black man with a gun in the wrong neighborhood? Image: The funeral of Omar Edwards. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America)