NYPD officers (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

April 22, 2021   6 mins

It was 1999, and I was 25 years old. I went on a jolly to Harlem with two black girlfriends from London to visit an African-American friend of mine. He was tall, gay, black and, like me, a teacher. I wanted to see more of the New York you see in films: basketball courts, people sitting by the roadside playing cards, washing lines teaming with wet clothes. So my friend rented a pretty red sports car; we all piled in and headed for the Bronx.

It hadn’t occurred to me that packing an expensive and shiny new car with black people and parading it around the Bronx might raise the suspicions of the police. Perhaps it should have, because only weeks before NYPD officers had shot unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo 41 times on his way home from a hard day’s work as a street merchant. Diallo was just going about his business when he reached for his wallet and officers shot him dead. It was a tragedy and travesty of inestimable proportions.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the police stopped us, beckoning us to pause by the side of the road. I should have noticed how terrified my friend was in the driver’s seat, his hands tightly gripping the wheel. But I was too happy to notice: I was on holiday and thrilled to see a vehicle with the letters NYPD plastered across it. It felt like we were in a Hollywood movie.

So I acted without thinking: I threw open the back door and leapt out of the car, camera in hand, shouting, “Hello officers! I wonder whether you might pose in a photo for us?”

Had things gone differently, some might have said I acted irresponsibly. I didn’t notice the police officers’ hands on their weapons. I didn’t notice the clasps on their guns undone. I didn’t realise just how differently the story might have ended, had luck not been on my side.

As it was, the policemen didn’t mistake my camera for a gun. They must have heard my accent and instinctively knew I wasn’t from the Bronx. And I was, of course, a woman. I wasn’t the sort they were looking for. They knew this without having to think, in the way that we all know things unconsciously in our bones.

The policeman on my side of the car laughed and happily huddled with us for photos, while his colleague spoke to my friend through the car window, asking for his driver’s licence. I didn’t notice how traumatised my friend was by the whole experience. I didn’t notice how he didn’t dare come out of the car.

So when I jumped back in with my two girlfriends, announcing proudly that I had persuaded the officers to lead the way to the best bits of the Bronx, I was surprised by my friend’s reluctance to follow. I pleaded with him, and in the end, he gave in.

Once we had toured the Bronx, the officers suggested we all go for drinks and we agreed. By this point, my friend had warmed to them and I was excited to ask what it was like to be part of the NYPD, whether it was like how it is portrayed in films and television.

The verdict of the policemen involved in the Amadou Diallo shooting loomed over my week’s stay in New York, the city waiting with trepidation on the news of the policemen’s fate. It was tense.

I went out for drinks a few times with one of the policemen I had met. I wanted to find out more about policing in New York and I suppose he thought I was cute. His name was John. He was 28 years old and he still lived at home with his parents in New Jersey. He didn’t earn much money: he was a cop. He was also tall, attractive and rather charming, and he spent some of his time trying to persuade me that a life in New Jersey might rival a life in London. I was flattered.

During every encounter I had with John in Harlem’s bars and cafes, I was noticed by everyone around us. You could just feel it, as if I was somehow betraying the people of Harlem by colluding with “the other side”. John explained to me that everyone knew he was a cop. The only white people in these parts were cops — and he knew how much people hated him. And now, they hated me too.

John was kind and rather sweet, but his job was dangerous and dirty. He told me about a time he was searching a derelict house for a drug dealer. Suddenly, a dog jumped out at him from nowhere and, startled and terrified, he shot it. He killed the dog. He didn’t mean to, but as he kept repeating to me, the animal took him by surprise and he reacted without thinking.

“But don’t they train you?” I said, exasperated. It seemed absurd to me that a trained policeman should end up so frightened that he killed a dog. John laughed, saying that they got tons of training, but that being human and flawed, policemen make mistakes. They make loads of mistakes. They don’t want to die, and in a culture where guns are easily accessible, a policeman fears for his life on a daily basis. As much as I understood what John was saying, I thought of Amadou Diallo and his family: “sorry we made a mistake” can’t have been much of a comfort. Amadou Diallo didn’t want to die either.

But over time, John’s stories rang more true to me. He actually explained at one point how he was ready to shoot me when I jumped out of the car, how he had his hand on his weapon set to strike, as he always does in these situations. It struck me how foolish I’d been, leaping out of the car without warning, brandishing a camera. It also struck me how lucky I was to be a woman; notwithstanding the death of Makiyah Bryant, the black teenager shot by an officer in Ohio as the world waited to find out whether Derek Chauvin was guilty of murdering George Floyd, women are 20 times less likely to be killed by the police.

John didn’t know the policemen involved in the Diallo shooting, but he didn’t agree with the population of Harlem who were convinced that the policemen had killed Diallo because he was black. John thought the policemen had just made a mistake.

“But they shot him 41 times!” I’d shout with annoyance at him. How could he not see that this was completely out of proportion?

One of the officers had slipped and fallen to the ground at the exact moment Diallo had removed his wallet from his pocket, it seemed to the other policemen that their colleague had been shot. It was in the middle of the night and the lighting was poor. John explained that bullets ricocheted off Diallo’s body. The officers were convinced that Diallo’s wallet was a gun and they thought they were being shot at. So they kept on shooting. It wasn’t a bunch of murderous white supremacist policemen pumping a black man full of bullets for fun. John saw the event as a tragedy. Black people in Harlem, however, felt very differently.

Anyone who has read and understood Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow knows about intuitive, biased thinking. Sometimes it works well for us and “going with our gut” helps us make the right business decisions or choose the right person to fall in love with. But on other occasions it can mean a black person doesn’t get shortlisted for a job, or Amadou Diallo gets shot 41 times until he is dead.

Even in the case of Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost ten minutes, that doesn’t mean that “unconscious bias training” is the answer — in fact, it could make things worse. Constantly talking about a problem encourages some to exaggerate its enormity and it certainly has the effect in some children of encouraging them to give up altogether.

Bias exists, of course. We recognise that it exists and is part of human nature, even to those with a gun and long hours of training. But we don’t need to terrify children by making the world seem more violent, more racist and more unfair that it actually is.

It is especially unhelpful when short films like Two Distant Strangers are nominated for an Oscar and lauded by the guilty white establishment for portraying a trendy, very middle-class black graphic designer being killed by a white policeman just outside what looks to be a charming loft apartment in New York’s SoHo. It might make the white establishment feel better about themselves but it doesn’t help the children in my care who want to — and can — rise up and better themselves.

At the end of my week in New York the verdict came in and the policemen who had killed Diallo were found “not guilty”. The pain to his family must have been indescribable. The pain to the wider black community was palpable.

When the Derek Chauvin verdict came through on Tuesday night, I found myself thinking about John, wondering if he is still working as a policeman, and what he thinks of the shooting incidents involving black men that have taken place over the 22 years since we met. I also wonder what he thinks of the hundreds of unarmed white people who have also been shot and killed by police, and who never get a mention in the media.

I wonder about that week in New York and how different my life could have been had that camera of mine been mistaken for a gun, or indeed how my life could have taken a different turn had New Jersey been able to compete with London.

It didn’t, but I have returned many times and still visit my teacher friend in Harlem — although these days I don’t wonder why, when stopped by the police, he doesn’t dare get out of the car.

Katharine Birbalsingh is the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, a free school established in 2014 in Wembley Park, London.