In midtown Manhattan, police officers shot and killed an African-American man in August after he had walked across Times Square waving a kitchen knife. His last moments tell the story of a broken law enforcement system in New York City.
Darrius Kennedy’s date with death begins at 3 p.m., in front of the Stars & Stripes of the neon American flag in New York City’s Times Square. Kennedy, a sturdy man with long Rasta braids, is wearing a white shirt with cut-off sleeves, faded jeans and light-colored shoes, and he is skipping backwards toward Seventh Avenue, waving an IKEA kitchen knife. He is going to die, a pedestrian shouts: “They’re going to kill you, brother!”
First a policewoman and then four or five other officers pursue Kennedy with their 9mm Glock service weapons, with a trigger pull of 12 pounds, held in both hands. Kennedy backs off from the officers, heading south into the eternal twilight of the streets of Manhattan. He has four-and-a-half minutes left to live.
Officers quickly seal off Seventh Avenue using police tape, and the first squad cars come hurtling down the avenues, their sirens howling. Pedestrians stumble through the blurred images documented by tourists running toward what they see as an adventure, whipping out their smartphones and cameras, hoping to capture a manhunt on video, while Kennedy continues to skip down the streets.
A Classic American Divide
The discussion that takes place in the aftermath of the shooting will divide cleanly along age-old American lines. Some will make snap judgments, in web forums, letters to the editor and call-in radio programs. “Gotcha!” they’ll write, “another bites the dust,” and “he deserved it.” They’ll lionize the police officers, calling them “New York’s finest,” praising their efforts to provide security in the big city. They’ll ridicule the victim, calling him a crazy, knife-wielding pothead — a foolish African American.
Others will ask anxious questions. They’ll wonder whether, in this troubled America, it’s even possible to just mourn, even if only for a day. They’ll want to know why a few dozen police officers couldn’t deal with someone like Kennedy in other ways. Why is it, one man asks, that escaped zoo animals are immobilized with tranquilizer darts, while a human being in New York is simply and ruthlessly shot to death in broad daylight?
Kennedy’s sister will be quoted as saying that her brother was a talented musician, a man who undoubtedly had his problems, and yet, she will say: “They could have shot him in the leg.” His aunt says that her nephew was a “loner,” and that people are spreading all kinds of lies about him. She insists that he was a good man, and that he wasn’t a bum.
Kennedy has picked a grotesque backdrop for his death. His short journey begins on brightly lit and eternally noisy Times Square, near the Minskoff Theater and ABC television headquarters, where huge electronic billboards advertise Broadway musicals like “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins,” as well as some of the world’s most recognizable brand names, like Coca-Cola, Samsung and Heineken. News headlines flicker across illuminated panels as big as tennis courts.
Times Square, diagonally sliced in half by Broadway, sees an average of 1.6 million pedestrians a day. It’s Aug. 11, a Saturday. The streets are devoid of office workers but filled with the usual weekend crowds. Day laborers dressed in Mickey Mouse and Elmo costumes stand at intersections, where tourists photograph them in return for pocket change, the “Naked Cowboy” is singing and playing his guitar and steam rises from the carts of food vendors. Kennedy and his pursuers gradually move south along the avenue, from 44th to 43rd to 42nd Street, Kennedy hopping along in front of them, making small, bouncy jumping moves like a cornered boxer, while the police officers, tense and vigilant, cautiously follow him at a distance.
No Police Reports in New York
A few hours later, New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly says that the police response was “by the book.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg says: “He had a knife and he was going after people.” But the videos uploaded to YouTube, and there are many of them, don’t seem to support the statements made by the mayor and Kelly. They also don’t show the police officers trying to subdue Kennedy with pepper spray, which they claimed they did four to six times.
There are no police reports in New York. There is, however, police spokesman Paul Browne, who doesn’t say much that’s useful, and there are police reporters. Sometimes they uncover valuable information, and sometimes they don’t. To them, Kennedy’s case is merely that of a bum who got shot to death. The headline in the New York Post will read: “He Got His Wish.”
The New York Police Department (NYPD) has its motto painted onto the sides of its squad cars, three guiding principles for the 36,000 men and women serving on the force: Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect. The NYPD Patrol Guide states, under Regulation 203-12, that the NYPD “recognizes the value of all human life and is committed to respecting the dignity of every individual.” The rule also states that police officers “shall not use deadly physical force against another person unless they have probable cause to believe they must protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious physical injury.”
Kennedy keeps moving. He crosses 42nd Street, passing the Ernst & Young building and the 42nd Street subway station, where lines N, Q, R, 1, 2, 3 and 7 intersect. Toward 41st Street, the fronts of buildings are covered with advertising for the new Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” On weekdays, office workers stand in the shadow of entranceways, smoking. Tour busses make their stops, and ticket sellers in red boleros pull passersby into their businesses. Those are normal days.
Three Minutes Left to Live
But at about 3 p.m. on Saturday, it is clear that this is no normal day — there is no one standing in the doorways. The area is shut down because of a man with a knife — one with a 6-inch and not a 12-inch blade, as the newspapers and TV stations will report, because they include the handle in their incorrect measurement.
The traffic has vanished from the broad avenue, and it is only police cars that hurry back and forth. Seen from Times Square, the crowd led by Kennedy is moving to the left of the center of the street. He now has two dozen or more police officers on his heels, most of them in uniform and a few in plain clothes, and all have their weapons drawn. They are accompanied by an amorphous swarm of eager witnesses, whose comments can be heard in the various clips. “Do you see this shit?” one person asks.
Kennedy, a 51-year-old who looks younger than his actual age, bounces along in front. At first, he turns his back on the police officers every few meters, looking as haughty as a torero turning his back on a bull. But now he is only striding backwards, keeping an eye on his pursuers through the round, green lenses of his metal-rimmed glasses. He has three minutes left to live.
The Trouble with ‘Zero Tolerance’
In this part of Manhattan, Seventh Avenue is also called Fashion Avenue. The side streets are filled with shops selling fabric, Indian wedding dresses and gaudy Asian clothes. The urban pace is a little slower here. The sea of lights in Times Square subsides, the buildings become less extravagant and tall, and the cityscape becomes noticeably shabbier.
“I think that under the given circumstances the shooting was justified,” says John Eterno, an athletic man with a gray beard and rimless glasses. He wasn’t at the scene, and he doesn’t know all the facts, but his opinion carries weight. Eterno was a police officer for 21 years, patrolling the streets of Manhattan. He taught at the Police Academy and he has written important pieces on police reform. He left the police force as a captain in 2004, when he went back to school to study criminology.
Eterno now teaches at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, a suburb on Long Island that happens to border Hempstead, the town where Kennedy grew up and is now buried. Depending on the traffic, the drive out to Long Island takes one to two hours, passing through a confusing blur of neighborhoods lined up along both sides of Jamaica Avenue, mile after mile. Then the city comes to an abrupt end and dissolves into postcard images of New England, idyllic villages, neatly divided into lots with small but attractive houses. Rockville Centre, where Eterno teaches, is one of those places. Hempstead, on the other hand, is different. It’s poorer, sadder. More black people live there.
Blind Severity Cemented by 9/11
So everything is in order with Kennedy’s death, the reporter asks? “Nothing is in order,” says Eterno “when you come to discuss the actual state of the NYPD.” His office is located in a low building on the edge of the campus, where the late-summer sun is beating down on the roof. Eterno talks for two hours. He makes a compelling case against the city’s corrupt, broken security apparatus, which, he says, is still tragically a model for the rest of the world. Eterno’s words suggest that Kennedy was also a victim of grim circumstances.
The NYPD developed a worldwide reputation for its “zero tolerance” policy and its great successes in the 1990s. The city was on the brink in the 1980s, with New York’s image shaped by pictures of burning garbage cans in the Bronx. That changed with the arrival of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who would soon become famous, and his equally well-known police chief, Bill Bratton. They substantially beefed up the police force and organized it like a business, with strict quality control procedures, applying statistical methods and considerable pressure to succeed. New York became safer and cleaner.
But scandals also became more and more common around the turn of the millennium. Police brutality became an issue, as did the NYPD’s blind severity and intimidating presence. The debate over these concerns would undoubtedly have continued if Sept. 11 hadn’t permanently changed everything. All of a sudden the NYPD, which until then had regularly faced sharp criticism from citizens’ advocacy groups, politicians and the media for every misstep, became an untouchable force made up of heroes. It was no longer kosher to criticize the police, and anyone who did was seen as behaving in a somehow un-American way. The situation began to deteriorate, as statistics suggest.
Unpleasant and Unsettling
In 2002, the New York police stopped around 97,000 people on the streets, often searching them in the procedure known as “stop and frisk.” For those affected, the experience is unpleasant, often humiliating and can be very unsettling, especially when plainclothes officers aggressively lay into citizens. The whole thing can feel like an assault.
The problem is that situation has been spinning out of control since 2002. More than 500,000 stop-and-frisk cases were recorded in 2006, and last year the number of cases peaked at 700,000. Most of those being stopped were completely innocent people. “In many parts of the city,” says Eterno, “the police behave like a besieging army.”
And the NYPD’s image of the enemy is as clear as glass. In 2011, about 86 percent of those stopped were blacks like Kennedy or Latinos. In the 17th Precinct, on the east side of Manhattan, where the two minorities together constitute only 7.8 percent of the population, blacks and Latinos made up 71.4 percent of stop-and-frisk cases. Similar statistics apply in Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side and Tribeca.
“It’s madness,” says Eterno. He says he can prove that the NYPD has figured out how to massage the truth when it comes to performance, encouraged by a city hall and police headquarters that are constantly proclaiming the good news that New York is “the safest big city in America.” Successes are talked up while real crime is downplayed. The city touted a 77.75-percent drop in crime between 1990 and 2009, even as it reduced the size of its police force by 6,000 jobs. “These numbers must seem completely crazy to anyone who knows anything about statistics,” says Eterno.
To back up his theories, Eterno interviewed a thousand police officers. They told him the most outrageous stories, all of which, upon closer inspection, proved to be true. According to the officers, individual police stations and precincts deliberately cook the books to make themselves look good to those higher up in the chain of command.
Declines in crime levels are artificially produced by documenting serious crimes as less serious offences — or by not recording crimes at all when they are reported in the first place. Rapes are downgraded to sexual harassment, and muggings are documented as petty theft, bringing down the overall crime count in the process.
Successes in the fight against crime can also be manufactured. Officers provoke arrests by charging old men with urban vagrancy when they are merely feeding pigeons. Pregnant women who sit down on the steps of subway stations to rest have been taken away for allegedly disturbing the peace. Unsuspecting citizens out for a stroll are stopped and frisked on playgrounds, because they don’t have children with them, as required by city ordinances. These examples are not unsubstantiated accusations by ideological groups hostile to the police. Rather, they are tangible charges, supported by audio recordings and the testimony of police officers who went public and filed complaints against the police force, because their internal grievances were ignored.
A Police Stop Culminates in Death
Kennedy’s path to his grave also begins with a police stop. Based on everything that’s been revealed to date, on the Saturday of his death, he is standing on the corner of 44th Street and Times Square. Perhaps he is smoking a joint, or perhaps he is not. But while smoking marijuana may be illegal, it is fairly common in the US — especially in New York.
A policewoman confronts Kennedy. Would she be doing this if she didn’t feel pressure to perform, to deliver the right numbers? And would she do it if he were white? And Kennedy, who is having trouble with the police because of a joint for the eighth time in his life, and who has been fed up with this sort of treatment for a long time, suddenly sees red. He snaps. He wields his knife, rages and resists. The pursuit begins.
He makes his way through a city in which worlds are drifting dangerously apart. The New York of a black man has nothing in common with that of a white woman. The former will get to know police officers as disrespectful tormenters, while the latter will encounter them as gallant figures. Police officers are bullies in poor neighborhoods while they hold the door open for citizens in wealthy areas. These contrasts become blurred around Times Square, a Babylon bustling with poor and rich people alike, where visitors mingle with half-crazy denizens of the city. This is the backdrop of Darrius Kennedy’s final minutes alive.
False Reports of a ‘Times Square Ninja’
By the time he crosses 40th Street, Kennedy is being pursued by about 30 police officers, both on foot and in squad cars, and they’re making a huge commotion. The air is filled with the crackle of announcements and the short bursts of police sirens. People are following along on both sides of the avenue like sports fans. Their numbers are difficult to estimate, but some of the videos give the impression that it could be hundreds. It’s certainly several dozen, and the crowd continues to grow along the way, egged on by a herd instinct and paying no heed to the potential for danger.
The police usually have special units for cases like this. In their jargon, he is an “emotionally deranged person,” or “EDP,” and the type of unit that would normally deal with EDPs is called an Emergency Service Unit (ESU). Its arsenal includes such “nonlethal” material as batons, tasers, shields and water cannons.
By now, though, Kennedy has been walking backwards, away from the police, for at least three minutes, and there is still no ESU in sight. No one will explain how it is possible that, three blocks from one of the world’s busiest public spaces, the NYPD is incapable of deploying a special unit within three minutes. In fact, there will be no explanations at all. The NYPD doesn’t respond to SPIEGEL’s inquiries or answer written lists of questions submitted.
What is known about the day of Kennedy’s death is that a large number of police officers, armed with pistols and out of their depth, are pursuing a single man with a knife. They have no batons or tasers. Supervisors, officers above the rank of sergeant, have these nonlethal weapons, and ideally there would be one supervisor for every eight officers. But on this day there doesn’t appear to be a single supervisor within the large group of police officers pursuing Kennedy.
They’ve already walked five blocks. It’s getting close to 3 p.m., the crowd of people in their wake is growing larger, and the disruption to city life becomes more and more intolerable. This can’t go on much longer. Finally, at about 38th Street, Kennedy makes another wrong move.
He leaves the center of the avenue, the width of which has protected him until now, and he bounces to the left, toward the sidewalk. Soon he’ll be walled in on one side. Throughout the whole ordeal, he looks like a defiant child more than anything else. What’s going through his head? Why doesn’t he just drop the knife? How is this game supposed to end?
The police and the papers will portray him as mentally disturbed, as an unemployed outsider, a homeless man and a drug-addicted loser with a criminal record. Even the New York Times, straying from its declared policy of only printing verifiable news, quotes dubious eyewitnesses, who contradict one another and apparently confuse Kennedy with someone else. They turn him into the “Times Square Ninj,” a man who often appeared on the square, wearing a Ninja costume and doing somersaults for tourists.
Neither Unemployed nor Homeless
Other news reports will state that Kennedy attacked people during his date with death, but that’s a claim that not even the police is making. None of the reports will specify that all of the offences in his “criminal record” related to the possession of small amounts of marijuana. In fact, almost everything that will be written about Kennedy is full of holes or is flatly wrong.
In fact Kennedy, as he makes his way down Seventh Avenue, is neither unemployed nor homeless, nor does he do back flips for tourists. For the last six years, he has lived on the top floor of an apartment building on Third Avenue and 25th Street. It’s an apartment reserved for the building superintendent, John Nyman, who uses it mainly for storage.
A long, messy hallway leads to the large apartment facing the street. Kennedy lived in one of the smaller rooms here. He had a deal with Nyman, who lives in his own apartment on 22nd Street: Instead of paying rent, Kennedy worked for Nyman and took care of his cats. When he wasn’t working, Kennedy lifted weights in the basement, and when he sang along to a song on the radio, says Nyman, it was easy to hear that he was a musical person and had a nice voice.
In an earlier life, back in the days of disco, Kennedy had been a professional musician. He played bass and, with a short haircut and sporting flashier clothes, he went on tour with various bands, sometimes even as far away as Asia. He was married and then got divorced in the 1990s. At some point, Kennedy stopped playing music. There isn’t much else to be discovered about his life. He played basketball as a child, and he sang in the church choir in Hempstead, but that was long before he became the man with the Rasta braids, the man with the knife.
‘He Was the Nicest Guy on Earth’
“You can believe me or not,” says Nyman, a wiry man with blue eyes, as he stands on the street, smoking a cigarette, “but Darrius was the hardest, most diligent worker I’ve ever met in my life. And he was the nicest person I knew, the nicest guy on Earth.” On the morning of that Saturday, when Kennedy went to Times Square, he and Nyman were standing around, drinking coffee together. They were friends, “and to this day, I still don’t understand what happened up there.”
Of course, Nyman did read the papers after the shooting, and he watched the videos and heard the police version of the story. He also heard the stories claiming that Kennedy had knocked over trashcans in Times Square and had threatened people with a screwdriver several years ago. “All I can say is that everyone who knew him, and that was a lot of people here, doesn’t believe a word of that. I think the cops make up these things.”
Since 9/11, says Nyman, New York as a whole has increasingly transformed itself into a city with a “medieval concept” of life. “Darrius smoked a joint? Okay, so what? If we were in Ohio, the police officers would have driven him home and let him off with a warning.”
Kennedy had a lot to do in the neighborhood. He was a handyman in 11 buildings, repairing drains and washing machines, bleeding radiators, and cleaning pipes, windows and toilets. He always worked on weekdays and often on weekends, and according to Nyman, he was always on time and “completely reliable.” A Ukrainian couple that works as janitors around the corner tells the same stories. They are mourning his death. “He’s missed,” says Nyman.
‘I Always Told Him the Knife Would Get Him in Trouble’
But what did happen with Kennedy? And what about the knife? “Oh, the knife,” says Nyman. “I have a knife, too. I use it to cut up boxes and open packages every day, and Darrius did the same thing. I always told him not to walk around the city with the knife, and that it would get him into trouble one day. But he didn’t want to listen to me.”
Did Kennedy have psychological problems? Nyman does not hesitate before responding. “He had his demons, sure.” According to Nyman, Kennedy found God a few years ago and had constantly studied the Bible ever since. “But most of all he hated the police. It was real hate, because they were always harassing him, throughout his entire life.” He hated them because they stopped and searched him — a black man and a pot smoker — again and again. “He was a pretty big guy,” says Nyman, “and for those police officers he was the picture of a suspect.”
Kennedy reaches the last several feet of his path through life on Saturday, Aug. 11, at shortly after 3 p.m. The exact time to the last minute isn’t entirely clear. He moves past a Bank of America branch on 38th Street, past an empty Off-Track Betting parlor and past the windows of a Chipotle fast-food restaurant.
He slows down. By now he is looking around nervously, and he must sense that his pursuers have him surrounded. What he probably doesn’t see yet is that a squad car is parked across the sidewalk like a barricade, next to the glass entrance of an office building at 501 7th Avenue.
Police spokesman Browne will later say that the officers opened fire after Kennedy had come within “two to three feet” — less than a meter — of them. Police Chief Kelly will report: “The officers got out of the car. As a result, Kennedy approached the officers with the knife; they had no place to go.” Both men, Kelly and Browne, aren’t telling the truth.
The various videos circulating on the Web clearly show that Kennedy is at least 15 to 20 feet away from the officers standing at the squad car when they start shooting. And it isn’t as if they had just gotten out of their cars and were taken by surprise by their victim or somehow found themselves in a situation requiring self-defense. In fact, they are standing there with their weapons drawn, waiting for Kennedy, who passes another shop, the Jewelry Patch, before turning around and facing his death.
A Pool of Blood Becomes a Tourist Attraction
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
10/17/2012 06:51 PM
By Ullrich Fichtner in New York
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
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