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."