Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Three New York City police detectives were just acquitted in a court trial (trial by a judge) for killing Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, on the eve of his wedding. The "victim" and two companions had gone to a topless club for his bachelor's party. The officers were working an undercover case against the club when they confronted the three men as they were leaving in their vehicle. Believing that one of the men had a gun and was about to use it against them, the officers opened fire, killing the groom-to-be and wounding his companions.

Much has been made in the press about the officers firing a total of 50 shots, with one officer firing 15 rounds and then reloading to fire 15 more. I have no intention of discussing the merits or details of the case. I do believe the judge rendered the right decision. Of course, the bride-to-be, her family and friends, the deceased's family and friends and many others, both blacks and whites, were incensed over the judge's decision. Al Sharpton loudly condemned the acquittal. My interest in this case concerns the 50 shots fired.

In recent years, several police shootings have been sensationalized by the media due to the number of shots fired by the cops. In 1999, four plain-clothed New York City police officers mistook Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant standing in front of his home, for a serial rapist. As they confronted the unarmed Diallo, one of the officers thought he had a gun and was going to shoot them. When he warned his fellow officers, they opened fire with a total of 41 shots, hitting Diallo 19 times, with one officer firing 16 rounds and then reloading to fire 15 more. A jury acquitted the officers of all charges, including murder.

In other cases where several officers confronted a suspect face-to-face with multiple shots, the media sensationalized the shootings when the "victim" was shot in the back, making it appear as if that was done deliberately. What the media refuses to acknowledge is the fact that when a person is hit by gunfire he is often spun around, which accounts for his getting hit in the back by some of the shots.

Why do officers fire so many rounds in a shooting incident? When officers fear an immediate threat to their lives, the "fight or flight" syndrome takes effect - and officers are expected to fight, not flee. Insitinctively they do not stop shooting until the perceived threat has passed. In the Bell case, the groom and his companions were inside a vehicle and the officers could not determine when and if the threat was over. In the Diallo case, the officers probably felt he continued to pose a threat until he hit the ground. With four officers engaged in rapid gunfire, he could have been readily hit 19 times before going down.

People expect police officers to be trained not to shoot at unarmed persons and trained to fire only one or two well-placed shots at a suspect. Such expectations are not realistic. Once, I happened to be near a shoot-out where a New York officer shot the gun out of a robber's hand. When I praised him for his accuracy, he replied: "Shit, I was really trying to hit the motherfucker between the eyes."

When an officer believes that an unarmed person is about to shoot him, you cannot blame the officer for immediately opening fire and to keep shooting until that person goes down. No amount or type of training can prevent an officer from going into a panic mode when he is placed in immediate fear of his life. And, during a street shoot-out, as opposed to a police firing range exercise, you cannot expect an officer to have the same confidence in hitting his target as he would have had in his training program. That's why he's unlikely to stop shooting until he feels sure his life is no longer in jeopardy.

When several officers are involved, a shooting frenzy is likely to follow the first shot fired by an officer. And, it is quite possible that some of the officer will mistake the shots they hear as coming from the unarmed suspect. It is very unfair to judge and condemn police officers for the number of shots they fire in an incident where they believe their lives are in imminent danger, whether the suspect is armed or not.

New York City is very fortunate that two of the three officers in the Bell shooting were black, thereby depriving Sharpton of his usual claptrap that white cops are murdering black men. Had all three cops been white, Sharpton's rants could easily have led to riots in the black community. The city is certain to be sued by Bell's family and by his fiancee. Rather than spend millions in legal costs, the city will probably settle out of court as it did in the Diallo case, where it paid his family $3 million.

The officers' ordeal in the Bell case is far from over. They will also be sued. Far worse though, they will be placed in double jeopardy if the U.S. Department of Justice acquiesces to the demands of Sharpton and other blacks that they now be tried for civil rights violations. (To its credit, in the Diallo shooting, the Justice Department refused Sharpton's demands that those officers be charged with civil rights violations.) As Bell's fiancee put it - this is not over!

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