Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Providence patrolman fatally shot yesterday

R.I. Police Officer Mistaknely Slain, Racial Issue Raised

PROVIDENCE – An off-duty Providence patrolman, the son of the city’s highest-ranking black police officer, was fatally shot early yesterday by two fellow officers who mis-took him for a suspect in a fight outside a late-night restaurant, authorities said.

Cornel Young Jr., 29, had rushed outside the restaurant with his firearm to assist the officers, who were confronting another armed man involved in an argument between two women, Police Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. said.
Young, dressed in civilian clothes, was shot when he did not respond to the officers’ commands to drop his firearm, Prignano said.

“It appears at this point that Officer Young did not realize that the officers did not recognize him and were ordering him to drop his firearm,” said Prignano, who called Young’s decision to help the officers “an act of heroism.”
The shooting raised questions from minority activists and Young’s friends about whether racial profiling, the practice of assigning more criminal suspicion to a person because of race, played a role in his death.
The other armed man, Aldrin Diaz, 30, of Providence, is being charged with murder, even though he dropped his weapon when ordered by police.

Diaz is being charged under a felony murder statute which states that anyone committing a crime during which a person is killed is responsible for the person’s death. The underlying felony in Diaz’s case is assault with a deadly weapon: brandishing a gun during the fight outside the restaurant.

“It is important to point out that the responsibility for this tragic incident lies with the suspect, Aldrin Diaz, who introduced the use of a firearm into this disturbance,” Prignano said.

“Today is one of the saddest days in the history of the Providence Police Department,” the chief said.
Police declined to release the identities or races of the officers who fired on Young.

It was unclear whether Young tried to identify himself as a police officer to the officers who shot him.

Young, who had been on the force for three years, is the son of Major Cornel Young Sr., commander of the community police division and the highest-ranking black officer in department history. The elder Young, during a gathering in a South Providence church yesterday, urged calm to a minority population that has clashed with police recently over allegations of racial profiling.

“Right now Cornel Senior just wants to know what happened, he just doesn’t believe it,” said state Representative Joseph Almeida, a former Providence police officer who visited with the Young family hours after their son died. “He wants to know why.”

Friends of the victim and minority activists said they believe race might have prompted police to shoot quickly. Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. said one of them has been on the force only a short time.

Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse will investigate the shooting. The NAACP in Providence and other civil rights groups in the city are asking for the US Justice Department to conduct an independent investigation.
“This is terrible. It’s senseless. It’s something that shouldn’t have happened,” said Thomas Horton, a friend of Young’s since childhood. “I think it’s more race-motivated than anything else.”

Cianci cautioned against quick characterizations of the shooting as racially linked. “I don’t think there were any racial overtones that I can see at this particular time,” the mayor said. “The tragedy is we have two officers who certainly in my opinion didn’t intentionally mean to kill a brother officer.”

The shooting happened about 1:40 a.m. outside Fidas, a small restaurant near the Federal Hill neighborhood and a popular destination for young people leaving nearby nightclubs after closing.

Police said that a fight broke out inside the restaurant between two women, one of whom broke a glass and tried to slash the other. An employee called police as the manager began clearing the restaurant.

The fracas continued in Fidas’s small parking lot. where Christa Calder, 27, of Gray, Maine, began screaming to Diaz to “get the gun,” Prignano said.

Two uniformed officers soon arrived at the scene, where they were confronted by Diaz, who was brandishing a gun. The police drew their service pistols and ordered Diaz to drop his weapon.

At this time, Prignano said, Young ran from inside the restaurant to assist his fellow officers.
“The two officers did not recognize Officer Young as a police officer and, as [Diaz] dropped his gun, they ordered Officer Young to drop his gun,” the police chief said.

When Young did not respond, Prignano added, “the two officers fired at Officer Young, believing he was a second suspect with a firearm about to open fire.”

Young was pronounced dead at Rhode Island Hospital.

Diaz was ordered held without bail following his arraignment yesterday. Wearing a green-striped sweatshirt at District Court, he was charged with murder with a deadly weapon, violent assault with a deadly weapon, and carrying a .22-caliber gun without a license. Judge Madeline Quirk granted the state’s request to hold Diaz without bail.

Diaz also was found to be in violation of probation on previous charges of escape and larceny of a motor vehicle.

“It would be Mr. Diaz’s position he was not committing a felony, and he was not the person who pulled the trigger, or the person who caused the trigger to be pulled,” said his attorney, public defender Christopher Millea.

The suspect’s mother, Paula Diaz, lashed out at police when she learned from reporters that her son had been charged with murder.

“He dropped his gun, so why is he being charged with murder?” Diaz said. “The police are trying to cover up themselves. Where’s the man who did it?”

Diaz said that her son has four children, up to 10 years old, and that he supports himself by repairing cars and doing odd jobs. She acknowledged that he had a criminal past, including car thefts, but that he now seemed determined to better himself.

Elsewhere in South Providence, a steady stream of visitors flowed in and out of the elder Young’s home.

“He was a great kid, the best” said a neighbor on Porter Street who asked not to be identified. Horton, Young’s childhood friend, said he considered the victim “the best officer on the force.” Young had encouraged him to join the department, Horton said.

“He respected his father so much, and he always talked about wanting to be a police officer,” said Horton’s mother, Pattie. “Even as a kid, he always wanted to help someone.

The last Providence police officer killed in the line of duty was Officer Steven Shaw, who was shot in 1994 by a fleeing robbery suspect.

About 470 officers serve on the Providence police force, and women and minorities make up 20 percent.

In recent years, black officers in a number of cities have been shot by fellow officers, sometimes fatally.

The shooting of Young evokes comparisons to the case of Boston police officer Michael Cox, who was beaten in 1995 by fellow officers who mistook him for a suspect. Four officers lost their badges in the case but no one was criminally charged with beating Cox, who has settled a federal lawsuit against the department for about $1 million.

On Thursday, officials said that the federal statute of limitations had run out for criminal charges in the Cox case.

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