May 1 1999

Only ‘Elegant’ Victims Need Apply

John Tierney, a columnist for the New York Times Metro section with an almost religious devotion to spreading the free market gospel, isn’t too impressed with complaints of police brutality made by black and Latino youth. Even when police firing 41 bullets killed an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, as he tried to enter his own apartment building, it didn’t faze Tierney. After all, he argued in a February 18 column, the police could be ignoring crime in minority neighborhoods altogether.

“The protesters already demanding jail terms for the officers who shot Mr. Diallo might consider who will be hurt if the police turn more passive,” Tierney wrote. You do have to wonder: What would happen to the city if police stopped shooting unarmed black men? What if it were considered a crime for the police to kill law-abiding civilians–even in minority neighborhoods?

Tierney pointed out that it would be no skin off the noses of cops if, faced with such unreasonable restrictions, they simply withdrew police services entirely from non-white communities. As the columnist wrote: “The police would do just fine if they stopped bothering strangers at night. They’d be much safer watching a Tarzan movie.”

It’s clear that innocent people being shot, beaten or simply subjected to unconstitutional searches by police—what Tierney calls “bothering strangers at night”—isn’t generally a problem that causes him to lose much sleep. But strangely, just a couple weeks later, Tierney was full of outrage against heavy-handed police tactics: His March 4 column described an “elegant woman who lives on Riverside Drive” who arrived late to a dinner party with “trembling hands” and a tale of police abuse.

The woman, Tierney reported, had been walking her dog in Riverside Park, when she was stopped by a dog-patrol vehicle from which a “menacing voice emanated.” The officer pointed out that her leash was longer than the legal limit, and let her off with a warning. That’s it–that’s the entire horror story.

The Metro column in the New York Times is supposed to deepen readers’ understanding of life in New York City; the fact that a Timescolumnist can work up sympathy for an “elegant woman” questioned about her dog leash, but can’t understand why people are outraged when an unarmed street vendor is gunned down, tells you all you need to know about the divisions in that city.