In July of 1992, a New York City policeman shot and killed a suspected drug dealer, leading to some of the worst urban rioting seen in America. The policeman’s name was Michael O’Keefe. The man he shot was José Kiko Garcia.
The shooting occurred during a struggle between the two men by the entrance to an apartment building in Washington Heights, which is toward the northern end of the island of Manhattan. This part of Manhattan is largely populated by people from the Dominican Republic. It has been notorious for the amount of drug trafficking occurring there, sometimes called the “drug capital of the world.”
Officer O’Keefe evidently thought his life was in danger. He issued a “10-13” call for assistance, a call sign reserved for dire situations. Although he stated subsequently that he believed that Garcia possessed a handgun, no such gun was found during the follow-up investigation.
Many residents of this part of Manhattan saw this shooting as an unjustified killing of a Hispanic man by a white police officer, and six days of rioting erupted.
Police officers are not exempt from the rules regarding justifiable versus unjustifiable homicide. In order to show that the shooting was lawful, O’Keefe had to demonstrate that he had a reasonable belief that his life was in danger. The case was brought to a grand jury in August, which did not indict him, indicating that they accepted his version of the incident.
The rioting that broke out for six days in this community was so severe that reinforcements were called in from the other New York boroughs to assist the New York Police Department there.
I spent a very strange three days on that detail. We assembled many blocks south of the area that was in turmoil, then drove into the riot area with police vans containing up to a dozen patrolmen in each. As we drove through the neighborhood, we saw what looked like a war zone, with cars overturned, cars and buildings set on fire, the streets filled with rioters.
It was pandemonium. Objects were thrown at our van, but we kept driving, as we were clearly outnumbered and did not want to use deadly force unless absolutely necessary.
Frankly, we feared for our lives. We made virtually no arrests. Shots could be heard in the background. We looked for the less violent, rather than the more violent, streets. We did not want to get killed. We drove with our riot gear on, and we limited our responses to those calls from cops needing immediate assistance, call signs 10-13 and 10-85, meaning help was needed “forthwith,” as soon as possible.
What caused the rioting? Why were the Dominicans in such an uproar? Hard to say, really. The lack of an indictment and an arrest was not very unusual, although not finding a gun on the victim made the circumstances unclear. New York Mayor David Dinkins and several other local politicians did not help to keep the atmosphere from being inflamed, either.
As with the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by Neighborhood Watch participant George Zimmerman, the initial reports contained significant inaccuracies. For example, rumor was that O’Keefe had shot Garcia while Garcia was lying on the ground. The autopsy and crime scene analysis showed that this was not correct. Furthermore, Garcia was reputed to be a drug dealer and had been the subject of arrests for illegal possession of a handgun.
What surprised me was how quickly a riot can develop. Perhaps this was somewhat influenced by the recent riots in Los Angeles, and perhaps the hot summer nights contributed to the tendency for violent confrontations to break out.
Understandably, people sharing a common culture tend to give greater weight to the testimony of people like themselves than they do to that of outsiders, and so it is hard for policemen who are not of their culture to get a fair hearing from them.
When law can no longer be enforced, everyone present becomes at risk.
THE SHIELD OF GOLD: A Candid Memoir by a NYPD Detective, was
co-authored by Lenny Golino and Douglas Winslow Cooper, and is available in ebook and paperback editions, published in November 2012, through Outskirts Press and amazon.com.
Would-be authors are invited to see DWC site http://writeyourbookwithme.com.