Fifty Shots Fired, and an Unarmed Man is Killed

One Police Group says it’s Understandable, Another says it’s Incompetence

The indictment of New York City police officers for killing an unarmed man the night before his wedding has disappointed two police organizations leaders-one because the charges are too severe and another who says the charges are too lenient.

On Nov. 25 Sean Bell, 23, and two friends-Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield-left the Kalua, a nightclub in Queens, New York. Once the group of men entered Bell’s car, a plainclothes officer approached them and the car lurched forward twice. Then 50 bullets were fired by the officer and four other undercover officers. Bell was killed and his friends were seriously injured.

Detectives Michael Oliver and Gescard Isnora who fired 31 and 11 shots respectively were charged with manslaughter, while detective Marc Cooper who fired four shots was charged with reckless endangerment.

“The charges were excessive because manslaughter means that the detectives went to the club with the intent to kill Sean Bell and that was not the case,” said Michael Palladino, president of the Detective’s Endowment Association immediately after the indictments were released

In New York, a person is guilty of first-degree manslaughter when they have intent to cause serious injury which results in death.

Noel Leader, co-founder of the organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, is dissatisfied with the indictment. He said in an interview that be believes all five officers should have been charged with second-degree murder.

“Either all of them had probable cause to fire their weapon or none of them did,” he said. “Do you realize how many young Black and Latino men are in jail for being present when a murder occurred?”

Second-degree murder applies in cases when someone clearly shows a depraved indifference to human life, or recklessly engages in conduct that causes the death of another person.

“It’s clear to me that the DA was not trying to get all five officers indicted because, as the saying goes, a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich,” Leader said.

This is why Leader and politicians such as the City Councilman Charles Baron (D-Brooklyn) were pushing for the appointment of a special prosecutor.

“The District Attorney’s office (prosecutor) and the NYPD have a close relationship. There is clearly a conflict of interest,” Leader said.

Sam Katz, executive assistant to Michael Palladino said, “It’s much more difficult than the average person can believe. The situation is messy, what happens is one officer fires their gun when they feel they’re being threatened and then the other officers fire in defense as well. These guys have a very difficult job, they don’t have too many options.”

A police officer for over 20 years before retiring last January, Leader said that law enforcement is not an easy job, “but if you are not capable of making a split-second decision based on the training you received as a police officer, file your paperwork and turn in your badge.”

New York Police Department procedure states that no officer can fire at a moving vehicle unless there is another threat visible, such as a weapon.

The officers through their lawyers said that they followed Sean Bell and two friends because they heard one of the men say that they had a gun in the car. No gun was found.

Convictions of on-duty police officers are rare; the last time it happened was 1977, according to a New York Times article. Thomas Ryan was charged with second-degree murder in the July 1975 beating death of Israel Rodriquez, a burglary suspect, in a Bronx station house. He was a fugitive for two years before he began his four-year sentence.

In Prince George’s County, Officer Stephanie C. Mohr was convicted in August 2002 for violating the civil rights of an unarmed man after her police dog bit him. According to eyewitnesses, the man was cooperating with police orders when the dog was unjustifiably released. This conviction came during a four-year investigation of the Prince George’s police force by the U.S. Justice Department.

The year before, Brian C. Catlett-the first officer to be indicted in Prince George’s County- was found not guilty by a judge for shooting an unarmed college student.

The four officers that shot Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant who was reaching for a wallet, 41 times were acquitted. Only one of three officers involved in the Abner Louima beating case is serving jail time, while the conviction of the other two were overturned on appeal.

“We’ve been here through this before,” said Barron to Newsday. “Diallo had indictments. Abner Louima had indictments. I think they’re setting this up for an acquittal.”