In his five months in the street crime unit, police officer Richard Murphy had personally taken five guns off the street and helped remove perhaps fifteen more. He’d also survived two encounters in which he had narrowly missed being injured – or killed. Though the 26-year-old cop had made 55 felony arrests during his five-year career on the NYPD, Murphy had never received a single Civilian Complaint Review Board citation – a significant measure of the manner – and attitude – in which he approached his work.
“Fifty-five felony arrests with no CCRBs – that’s better than 85 to 90 percent of cops,” says former NYPD chief of department (and notorious hard-liner) Louis Anemone. “That’s extremely professional.” To another NYPD veteran, Murphy’s lack of CCRBs suggests that “he’s a ‘people person,’ ‘cause if you’re a new cop, you’ll get a complaint in your first ten arrests.”
Like 90 percent of his colleagues, Murphy had also never discharged his weapon, though he’d had plenty of opportunities. Steve Brandow, his partner at the 115th Precinct in Queens, once watched as Murphy showed “tremendous restraint” in a situation in which “most other officers probably would have fired and been justified by department guidelines for doing so.”
“Ever since I became a cop,” Murphy says, “I prayed I’d never, ever have to use my gun. That was my goal – to get through my whole career without firing.”
All that changed in the early-morning hours of February 4, 1999, when Murphy and three other Street Crime Unit cops – Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss – had an encounter with Amadou Diallo that cost an unarmed man his life and sparked the biggest outburst of anti-police sentiment the city has seen in recent years. Forty-one bullets were fired at Diallo, four of them from Murphy’s gun. Nineteen struck him. The 22-year-old middle-class Guinean with the gentle smile, a devout Muslim who planned to enroll in college, died from wounds to his chest, left side, left back, right arm, and legs that caused ruptures of the aor-ta, spinal cord, lungs, liver, spleen, kidney, and intestines.
For many, the Diallo shooting, like the station-house torture of Abner Louima, personified police brutality in a city whose cops seem to have been given freer and freer rein. Congressman Charles Rangel’s declamation “If this had been a horse that had been shot by 41 bullets, there would be more outrage” typified the anger the incident provoked. During fifteen days of protests organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton at One Police Plaza, distinguished citizens, congressmen, celebrities, State Comptroller Carl McCall, former mayor David Dinkins, and ordinary New Yorkers – some 1,200 people in all – arranged to get briefly arrested, to demand the officers’ arraignment. On March 31, the day the downtown protests ceased, Carroll, Boss, McMellon, and Murphy were all charged with two counts of second-degree murder and one charge of reckless endangerment.
These are among the harshest indictments ever meted out to police officers. The severity was partly due to the fact that they had declined to testify before the grand jury (which never heard their side of the story). But even those who’d expected murder indictments were surprised that Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson added a second charge – of murder “with intent” – that is almost never applied to police officers. (New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, as vigilant a police watchdog as one could want, had called it not a deliberate attack on a known innocent but a “hideous mistake” by cops who perceived themselves in danger.)
“They’re scapegoats,” Eric Adams, spokesman for a black police officers’ group, says of the Diallo cops. “The people on trial are the wrong people on trial.”
Moreover, the indictments stuck: On September 29, declaring that “there is sufficient evidence for every charge,” presiding justice Patricia Anne Williams turned down defense requests to dismiss the indictments. If convicted, the four cops could get life sentences. The trial is set to begin January 3.
Many who mourn Amadou Diallo see his death in stark racial terms. But for Richard Murphy, for the cops who worked with him in the 115th Precinct in Queens, for people who grew up with him in College Point, for veteran officers intimate with the workings of the Street Crime Unit, the tragedy was never a matter of black and white, literally or figuratively. And while the city has demanded justice in this case, New Yorkers know almost nothing about the four officers who fired their guns on February 4 and became the “Diallo cops.” Richard Murphy is the first to break their silence. This is his story.
The phone woke Sharon Murphy at 5:30 a.m., one hour before she, her husband, and their two-month-old son were planning to leave for Vermont. “Normally Rich would say, ‘I got a collar; I’m gonna be home late,’ but this time he said he didn’t know when he’d be home,” Sharon, 27, recalls. “His voice was really shaky.” Unable to sleep, Sharon beeped Rich, but he didn’t call back, which was extremely unusual. She paged him a second time, still to no avail. He finally called at 9:30. Vermont was off. “I can’t talk about it,” he said, still sounding shaken. “There was a shooting, and – the guy’s dead. Just take that for an answer.”
As a cop’s wife, Sharon – who has her own career as an accountant – had braced herself for many awful scenarios, but nothing comparable to the one she saw when she turned on New York 1 just after noon: In the vestibule of an apartment building at 1157 Wheeler Avenue, in the Soundview section of the Bronx, at about 12:40 a.m., a West African street vendor had been killed by the police in a hail of bullets. Three more hours went by with no phone call. “At about 4, 4:30, he walked through the door,” Sharon remembers. “Pale as a ghost. He looked horrible, like a zombie. I flew over to him. I said, ‘Is that you? Are you one of them?’ He sat down on the couch. He couldn’t even talk. He just nodded.”
When I first visit the Murphys, in July, Richard is wearing shorts and a blue T-shirt from the 115, which doesn’t quite hide the fifteen pounds he’s packed on from nervous eating since February. He’s been working nights answering the phones and doing desk work – standard post-suspension modified duty – in a nearby basement NYPD electronics shop, so he gets to spend days with his wife and son, Robert Moses.
Sharon had been strongly opposed to her husband’s joining the dangerous Street Crime Unit. She remembers “getting sarcastic – ‘You think you’ll make a difference?’ – and crying hysterically,” she tells me. But the unit was significantly responsible for reducing shootings in the city from 2,500 in the first half of 1993 to fewer than 1,000 over the same period in 1998. “I just tried to make her understand,” Richard says. “Two thousand guns off the street a year is helping people.” Sharon reconsidered. “I was a happy workaholic; I had my career. So if he wanted to further himself and make a difference, did I have the right to stop him? So I said, ‘I really, really don’t want you to do it. But if you’re gonna be miserable not doing it, do it.’ I thought he’d say, ‘All right, I’ll pull my application.’ He didn’t.”
The Murphys’ two-bedroom duplex is in a large, diverse Queens development about equal parts East and South Asian, black and Hispanic, and white. The white-porticoed redbrick is on a square of identical houses facing a tree-studded central lawn, like dorms in a university quad. The living room has pillow-piled Seaman’s couches, a smoked-glass coffee table and entertainment unit, and two large photographs of the couple at their September 1996 wedding.
Murphy’s credulous face, framed by a spiky dark thatch of half-grown-out summer crew cut, seems younger than his 26 years, yet he exudes a wintry melancholy. He talks like a street kid – dropped g’s, flat affect – but his gestures (he squints, looks off, rakes his fingers through his hair as he answers questions) betray his thoughtfulness. On a chain around his neck hangs a gold Star of David with a crucifix inside, a symbol of his marriage.
Sharon Gutnik Murphy, in white tee and khaki slacks, is as lanky and effervescent as her husband is panda-like; her silky ginger hair streams down her back. Though Hebrew was her first language, her mid-Island speaking voice resembles Mariah Carey’s. After the shooting, they talked about writing Amadou Diallo’s parents a letter but were advised not to do so. Why didn’t they speak out immediately to a city that needed to hear what they had to say? “Richard adamantly didn’t want people to think he wants them to feel sorry for him,” Sharon says. “We didn’t want to put the focus on us instead of where the sympathy belongs, on Diallo’s family.” Then she adds, “We didn’t want Al Sharpton to say, ‘Look at that pathetic couple, trying to draw attention to themselves.’ “
“I feel terrible for the Diallo family,” Murphy says. “We all do. There’s not one of us who doesn’t. I wouldn’t want anybody to have to go through that. I understand their pain. No” – he’s caught himself sounding presumptuous – “I don’t understand their pain; I don’t think anybody can truly understand their pain. But I truly feel for their pain. And I can understand why they’re upset. I can’t say enough how bad I feel. I feel terrible that this had to happen.”
The words had to happen are significant, of course. Murphy insists that he was justified in firing his gun that night. The officers’ version of events hinges on their belief that Diallo might have been the multiple rapist they were looking for (that man, Isaac Jones, was arrested in early April, and confessed to 4 of what may be a total of 51 rapes), and their mistaken perception that he was armed. When Diallo drew what turned out to be his wallet from his pocket, Carroll shouted, “Gun! He’s got a gun!” And when McMellon fell backward off a stoop step, his partners thought he’d been shot.
“Are the Diallo cops bad guys?” I ask veteran policeman Lieutenant Eric Adams, spokesman for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and frequent critic of Mayor Giuliani’s police policy. “Have you heard anything bad about them? Personally? As officers?” If anyone had, it would be Adams, who sponsored African-American ex-Street Crime cop Yvette Walton’s testimony on the subject of racial profiling at the New York Civil Liberties Union hearings last spring. Adams has spoken out against the Street Crime Unit’s intensive stop-and-frisks in minority communities, as well as against the unit’s historical lack of accountability to the local precincts it enters (in October, Commissioner Safir decentralized the unit), and he has pointedly wondered aloud why white cops in black communities are “in such a hurry.”
Nevertheless, in answer to my questions, Adams says, “No, they’re not bad guys.
“These four officers could have been any four Street Crime officers in the city, given the atmosphere that existed in an administration where there’s a marriage between City Hall and One Police Plaza,” Adams continues. “These four have to stand trial, because they did the act, but in a larger sense they’re scapegoats. They were heroes before the Diallo shooting; overnight they became villains, and the generals who gave them marching orders are left untarnished. The people on trial are the wrong people on trial.”
Richard Murphy grew up in college Point, Queens, the second of four children of an Italian-German housewife and an Italian-Irish fireman. On his father’s side, virtually all the men for three generations had been cops or firemen. The Italian culture was dominant; when he was growing up, life was “big dinners after church on Sunday,” Murphy recalls, and demonstrative affection. What was notable to Richard’s first-grade teacher, Stephanie Herbert, who became a family friend, is “how you would see Richard, as an adult, and his father hugging – many times. You don’t always see a father and son like that. It is an extremely loving family. And Richie lived at home until he got married – today, that’s unusual.”
Richard Murphy Sr. spent nineteen years (eight in the South Bronx, eleven in Harlem), responding to warehouse arsons and pulling kids out of infernos. “I left the fires at the firehouse,” he says. “At home, we never talked about them – it was just me and my family. Rich just knew when he was growing up that I was part of a tremendous family of good people. He’s seen great men, growin’ up.”
Richard Sr.’s appreciation of the more politically unambiguous heroism of fire-fighting compared with crime-fighting is what made him want to guide his son into the NYFD. Richard Sr.’s own experience had taught him that the cops have it harder. “I worked together with cops in the worst neighborhoods in the city. It’s more dangerous to be out on the street eight hours a day. The fire truck backed into the firehouse and that door shut. It’s an island. It’s refuge. Cops didn’t have that.”
One Hundred Twenty-fifth Street in College Point in the seventies and eighties was also a refuge. The neighborhood was self-sufficient. “Everything was right there,” says Murphy’s close friend George Faller, a sanitation worker’s son. “Our church, St. Fidelis, was up the block; St. Fidelis School, where we went, was right next to it; the park where we played – it was all there. All our friends were on the block. Richie and I would play Dungeons & Dragons and read fantasy books like Tolkien and Robert Jordan. And we’d always talk about God and spirituality.”
They went to St. Fidelis every Sunday, long after most of the other neighborhood kids had stopped. “Rich and I were both searching for an intimate connection with God,” Faller says. “There’s not too many guys you can talk to about that. We’d climb trees and get in nature and ask each other: ‘Who is He? What kinda God is He?’ We’ve had these conversations pretty much nonstop since I was 8. I always believed in more of a loving God – just be a good person and things will take care of themselves. Rich would talk about reading the Old Testament and how God there is very specific and strict, a vengeful God.”
Today Murphy’s theology is catholic, small c – he’s reading about Buddhism and has been practicing Tai Chi for three years with a Chinese master in Chinatown. “I think God looks into our hearts and can tell if you’re a good person,” he says. “It’s not like you have to be christened or you won’t go to Heaven; I don’t believe that anymore.”
Fighting was part of life in College Point. “It was a tough Irish-German neighborhood,” Murphy says. “If you disrespected someone, that was how you settled it.”
“Where we lived, you didn’t let anyone push you around,” Faller says. Yet he and Murphy were also fascinated with nonviolence. “We talked about Gandhi and Jesus and Martin Luther King,” Faller continues. “Right behind my house was a synagogue. We used to go after football and sit under the big tree in its open yard. Once we were there, talking about Bernhard Goetz. Here’s a guy who had enough and finally fought back. I told Rich I always thought if I was black I would be a Black Panther – ‘cause of all the injustice, I’d want to fight back. Rich disagreed. He said, ‘Yeah, but look at the results of Martin Luther King. He achieved more than anybody did, without violence.’ “
“Yes, I’m scared,” Murphy admits. “We’re all scared. It’s like livin’ with an anvil on your shoulder.”
“Relationships always seemed to be very important to Rich,” says Stephanie Herbert, who continued to observe him in the halls of St. Fidelis. He was a fair student, never college-minded at a time when a lot of the neighborhood boys were set to go. “I don’t know why that was,” Herbert says. “He was always floating around with a book in his hand.” He entered Holy Cross High School, but “to stay here you have to be highly motivated academically,” his guidance counselor there, Tom Pugh, says, “and Rich was one of the ones that get motivated later.” He transferred to Flushing High. With friend Donald Zuvich (now a teacher), he volunteered as a kids’ sports mentor at the local Poppenhusen Institute. Murphy, Zuvich, Faller, and Faller’s brother played hockey, football, and baseball and listened to Nirvana, Metallica, and Pearl Jam.
In the summer of 1987, David Woods, the catcher on Rich’s Holy Cross baseball team, was stabbed to death when, after seeing a girl in the neighborhood crying, he went to a park and confronted the boy she said had slapped her. Richard was devastated. “David was a special kid,” Pugh remembers. “His parents were hearing-impaired; he could sign. He was an outstanding saxophone player, a 90-plus student. And the boy who killed him had never been in trouble before.” “Rich learned,” his father says, “that this is all for keeps.”
Rich Murphy graduated from the police academy in September 1994 and stayed in Queens, where he was assigned to the 115. During the four and a half years Murphy was there, the 115 almost consistently fell within the top half of the city’s civilian-complaint-prone precincts. Yet Murphy himself was never cited for anything but his first-class work.
A lot of the cops who worked with Rich Murphy at the 115 feel that what happened to him could have happened to any of them. “Unfortunately, we’re judged by a decision we make in a fraction of a second,” says Murphy’s mentor, Steven Brandow, whose young priest’s face and earnest manner belie the fact that he’s a thirteen-year veteran, nine of those years in the Bronx. “If I was in his shoes that night, I’m scared to say it, but I might have acted the same way. And I’m a cop who’s done 300 arrests and never had to resort to deadly physical force. But I know for a fact Rich Murphy didn’t wake up that morning saying, ‘I’m gonna shoot somebody.’ I have the greatest respect for him – his skilled tactics, the sensitive way he interacts with crime victims, his communication skills with people on the street. He has a carin’ heart. He treats others the way he would want others to treat him. He was by far one of the best officers I worked with.”
Murphy was known as a “positive guy,” says Jamie Giambron, a short, round-cheeked officer who, in the red football jersey he’s wearing on plainclothes detail, looks like a high-school senior. “Once, a bunch of us went to Baltimore for a Yankees game; a couple of the guys had too much to drink and got into a fight and Rich was, like, the focal point of breaking it up. Even when he played hockey – and we played rough hockey – I never seen him get violent. And you’d see the other guys goin’ crazy.”
Murphy walked a beat in C-Pop (community policing) with a black partner. “Rich and I were buddies,” says that officer, who requested that his name not be used. “He helped me move into my house. We hung out a couple of times. Richie had a lot of respect for people.”
On patrol, “Rich would use his sense of humor as part of his thick skin,” Brandow says. “Somebody was drunk and said the F-word and gave him the finger – he’d laugh, just brush it off. And Rich would use ‘verbal tone,’ which means in an arrest situation, he gets what he wants without using any type of force.” Murphy was what is known as an “active” cop; he wanted what cops call “quality” arrests, the “index crimes” – robbery, burglary, rape, grand-larceny auto, felony assault, felony weapons offenses.
“Rich’s whole aspiration was gettin’ bad guys,” says Brian McConville, a muscled, fast-talking David Duchovny look-alike. “Not writin’ $55 tickets for people who park in front of a grocery store for two minutes. He didn’t want to be bothered with that; he wanted the person that was gonna go into your car and rob you.” Murphy apparently didn’t get along with one precinct boss who pushed for summonses, the pressure intensifying department-wide during Tuesday and Thursday “summons blitzes,” when a cop face disciplinary action if he writes 15 tickets, say, instead of 30.
To get the great arrests, you have to go where the violent crime is. Murphy and Brandow were brought onto the Roosevelt Avenue Task Force, where they intercepted crimes in progress underneath the elevated No. 7 line subway tracks, a nightly hotbed of robbery, assault, and drug trafficking. Murphy says his gratification came from making the area safe, “so kids could go to the bodega for milk without sprinting from bullets.”
It’s not an uncommon assumption that white cops eager to make felony arrests in high-crime areas harbor a racist agenda, so I ask the 115th’s community-affairs officer, Earl Dawson – who is African-American and who was at the precinct for the entirety of Richard Murphy’s time there – whether he ever saw Murphy show any evidence of racial insensitivity. “First of all,” Dawson says evenly, “if I had, I wouldn’t tell you; I would just say nothing. But to answer your question: Absolutely not. I’ve seen Officer Murphy with everyone short of a Martian, and he treated everyone the same. He’s a very respectful young man. A true civil servant. He came to this precinct with a twinkle in his eye, and I knew he would be a credit to it.” When the Diallo shooting occurred, Dawson says, “I was surprised that it was him. My first feeling was, I felt bad for him.”
It was with Brandow that Murphy made his best arrests. “Steve taught me how to be a good cop,” Murphy says. “I was lucky to have him as a mentor.” Once Murphy and Brandow arrested two men who’d invaded a home, hog-tied and robbed five people, committed a carjacking, and shot a man, almost fatally. (Both officers earned the rarely awarded Commendation medal for “an act involving grave personal danger.”)
“But probably my scariest time at the 115,” Murphy says, “was when Steve and I rolled into a couple of guys fighting over a gun.” The partners weren’t sure who was the perpetrator, who the complainant; they had only seconds to react. One of the men dropped the gun; Brandow stuck it in his back pocket; he and Murphy started trying to arrest the man they determined was the perpetrator, but that man, who was considerably huskier than either cop, fought vigorously with Brandow and with the complainant.
As a crowd gathered, “I got one handcuff on him,” Brandow recalls. “I was trying to get the other out, I was totally vulnerable to the gun in my back pocket.” Murphy suddenly saw a third man come out of the crowd, up behind Brandow, and start to pull Brandow’s gun out of its holster. Murphy had a couple of seconds to decide whether to shoot; he didn’t because, he says, “I didn’t want to take the chance of shooting Steve.” Instead, “I tackled him off so he wasn’t able to take Steve’s gun, got him to the ground and handcuffed him,” while Brandow finished cuffing the first man.
When Murphy recounts the incident (for which they were also decorated), he ends it there. But Brandow says, “Rich Murphy saved my life. If he had reacted any slower – and the majority of cops wouldn’t have been able to react as fast as he did – then this individual would have had my gun out and would have shot me with it. A second later, I’d probably be dead. Later on, you feel it. You know it. This is our job. This is what stresses us. This is what it’s all about.”
One night about a year into his posting at the 115, Rich Murphy got an after-work call from Brian McConville to join him and some friends at the Forest Hills bar Backdrafts. At the table with McConville were two other cops and two sleek, gregarious, tomboyish women, Sharon and Keren Gutnik. The daughters of divorced Israeli émigrés, the twins were raised in Flushing by their strict traditionalist father, a diamond cutter who eventually owned medallion cabs. They had graduated from the Hebrew Academy of West Queens, where the dress code was conservative, the sexes segregated, and prayer and Torah study took up four hours a day – and they were now, as both women put it, “retaliating” against their sheltered upbringing. Keren worked on Wall Street; Sharon was an accountant for a 47th Street gem company (later, she would go to work for a telecommunications firm). McConville knew Keren as an ace dart thrower and pool player who was dating plumber-electrician Anthony Favia (to whom she’s now married). The Gutniks were “great; they were like guys,” McConville says. “You could say anything in front of them.”
The women didn’t think Rich Murphy was a cop. “He wasn’t a badge-flasher, and he didn’t have that macho attitude,” Keren says. Sharon was surprised that despite his “College Point lingo” – aks and ain’t – he could talk politics, history, geography. When Richard’s friends would beep him during their dates, Sharon was struck that, unlike other guys, “instead of saying, ‘I’ll meet up with you at – ’ or ‘Maybe later, man,’ he’d tell them, ‘No, I’m hangin’ out with Sharon. That’s right, I am whipped. You have a problem with it, don’t beep me.’ That attitude is why I wanted to marry him.”
He started working around the clock to buy her an engagement ring. The only one of the parents who objected to the relationship, at least in the beginning, was Sharon’s father. George Faller couldn’t believe that Murphy was agreeing to raise his children Jewish: “Rich said, ‘It’s the same God, so in the bigger picture, it’s not that big a deal; it’s just semantics.’ He was in love; he’s still in love. He felt it was God’s will that they met, so who was he to screw it up because he had a little problem he didn’t anticipate?” Richard puts it this way: “If religion is based on love, then how can you let religion stand in the way of love? I talked to my priest – my priest is good – and he agreed with that.”
Sharon and Richard were married under a chuppah by a rabbi and a priest. They had pooled their savings and took out two loans to pay for the wedding themselves: $25,000 for the ceremony and reception, $4,900 for the Caribbean honeymoon. Robert was born last December 9th, and the bris was held at the home of Rich’s parents.
The Street Crime Unit in the eighties and early nineties – an intimate corps of 105 to 150 officers, highly trained in stealth work and risky maneuvers, operating in tight, long-term teams – was one of the NYPD’s top outfits. It represented less than one half of one percent of the department’s manpower but was responsible for more than 20 percent of the gun arrests. The unit had decoy operations, taxi-robbery units, and cops highly familiar with the boroughs they worked. For a number of years, the unit also had about 25 detectives; every criminal was debriefed immediately after arrest, resulting in more gun arrests and the tracking of gun-trafficking and robbery patterns.
Deputy Inspector Richard F. Savage was the SCU’s commanding officer during those years. “The secret was our selection process,” he says. “The applicant had to be a star in his precinct, with not just a good reputation but a lot of good-quality arrests, and couldn’t have a lot of negative disciplines. The ideal candidate was an anti-crime plainclothesman in his precinct. He had to be highly recommended by his commanding officer. Then, having all these things, they came to me for an interview.” Savage grilled the cop, looking for the rare few who would show character and street smarts in the most dangerous assignments.
In the middle to late nineties, the idea of expanding the small, elite unit to 400 members was broached. Savage believes the notion “came directly from the mayor and the commissioner, to try to help the mayor further reduce crime.” Savage opposed the proposed expansion, warning his bosses that such a move would be “dangerous.” “I love the department,” he says, speaking very deliberately. “I hesitate to say anything negative. I hesitate to place blame anywhere. But I thought the expansion was a stupid idea, and I told them so.” The expansion went forward anyway. Savage was transferred and has since retired.
“I thought the expansion WAS a stupid idea, and I told them so,” says the Street Crime Unit’s former chief. It went forward anyway.
Active, idealistic young cops wanted to join Street Crime. As Rich Murphy’s ex-cop friend Faller puts it, “If you wanted to get the bad guys, if you weren’t disillusioned, then Street Crime was it.” In charge of the expansion was Chief of Department Louis Anemone, known as a cop’s cop, who, in contrast to the avuncular, wistful Savage, speaks with passion of the sheer romance of dangerous street work, even in retirement.
When Murphy told Brian McConville he was applying to Street Crime, “I told him he was crazy. He wasn’t gettin’ extra money for it – workin’ weird hours in bad neighborhoods. I told him it wasn’t for me. But Rich wanted to clean those neighborhoods up.”
Earl Dawson remembers having “had a foreboding about Street Crime. I was just never real comfortable with it. A plainclothes unit should reflect the nature of the neighborhood it services; the whole point is to blend in.” But the community-affairs officer never had a chance to share his misgivings with Murphy. “One day,” Dawson says, “he was just gone.”
Having spent all the summers of her youth in Israel (where she tried to join the army), Sharon Murphy is used to adversity. She kept New York 1 on all day through the demonstrations (“I’m a glutton for misery,” she wryly admits; Richard, to keep sane, avoided all media about himself) and wore Rich’s Street Crime Unit jacket with pride all last winter. (No one on the street said a word, and though “our neighbors probably whispered among themselves” about her husband’s new notoriety, she adds, “they didn’t say anything to us.”)
“The worst thing is watching the pain Rich is in,” Sharon says, “and realizing there’s nothing I can do to help him.” “The worst thing is seeing what my wife is going through” were Rich’s first words to me. “Yes, I’m scared,” he admits. “We’re all scared. It’s like livin’ with an anvil on your shoulder.”
On March 31, Richard Murphy was arrested, fingerprinted, arraigned, and bailed out, along with Boss, McMellon, and Carroll. Bronx D.A. Robert Johnson said, “I recognize, as others do, that the death of Amadou Diallo has a context larger than the facts of this case. Feelings of fear and frustration abound. Troubling questions have been raised, particularly in communities of color but certainly not limited to them, regarding police-community relations, civil liberties, and issues of respect.”
The Times opened its editorial two days later noting that the murder indictments could be expected to “calm” the “angry” crowds.
Johnson has said he never heard of police firing as many shots at an unarmed man as the 41 in this case. Yet there was such a case, in October 1997, in the Bronx. It was much less disturbing than Diallo’s in key regards: The three young men the cops shot – one was killed, another injured, and a third was unharmed – were drug dealers who had attempted to rob undercover narcotics cops, and though they had no gun, one held a bottle, and a screwdriver was later found in his pocket. Still, the cops had fired 52 shots, on the street, in the middle of the afternoon, some in front of a community center where mothers were standing with small children. Most of the seven cops who fired, the police report shows, were black or Hispanic, and while some were disciplined, the case was never presented to a grand jury.
Johnson’s spokesman, Steven Reed, told me that the lack of grand jury investigation was appropriate because the witnesses’ accounts did not contradict the officers’. He said the number of shots, time, and place were immaterial. However, one eyewitness, Bernardo Rodriguez, the executive director of the community center, felt differently. He told me he spoke to the commander at the scene, complained at the precinct, attended a community-board meeting, and reported the incident to New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel, serving at the time on the mayor’s task force on police brutality. Despite his efforts, Rodriguez’s attempts to gain greater accountability for the incident were fruitless.
Sharon Murphy ticks off on her fingers the things she refuses to do anymore: Watch her once-favorite TV show, NYPD Blue (in one episode last spring, a character called the Diallo shooting cold-blooded murder). So much as glance at an issue of The New Yorker (she pronounces its Art Spiegelman cover of a cop gleefully firing at citizens in an amusement-park shooting gallery “a disgrace”). See another Susan Sarandon movie (Sharon: “I saw her hold up a sign saying you were a racist!” Richard: “Nah, she just walked through and got arrested.”)
When I arrive at the Murphy house in late September, Rich has lost weight; his hair has grown out. He’s just finished changing Robby, now eight months old, and he’s depositing big smacky kisses on the baby’s stomach. Then he and Sharon take baby, stroller, and diaper bag, and we drive off to Kissena Park and walk around the large, meandering lake. Sharon hooks her arm in his; he pushes the stroller. They talk about camping trips they’ve taken to Maine; he says he’d love a house in Vermont; but every plan’s on hold.
The house at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx is, like the Murphys’, a redbrick building. The sunny day I visit there, residents sit on stoops and lean on cars, and children crowd a parked ice-cream truck. You can still see the bullet holes on the outside of the building, and you can see more holes in the walls of the vestibule. Someone has written, near the mailboxes, REST IN PEACE, AMADOU.
I asked Richard Murphy last summer what he would give to be able to take back the events that happened here. His eyes snapped open as if at a mirage. He drew a breath and said, “Anything.”