As the Queens district attorney’s office continues its criminal probe into culpability for the fatal shooting of Queens resident Sean Bell, 23, by police officers outside a Jamaica strip club in late November, demonstrators have filled major streets of New York with rallies against excessive use of police force. But away from the spotlight, a broader public policy discussion has been taking place among criminal justice advocates, law enforcement experts and lawmakers on a broad range of measures that they think, if implemented by the NYPD, will not only help prevent future incidents like the Bell shooting, but also result in more effective policing.
Beginning Jan. 24, City Limits has learned, City Council will investigate many such reform proposals in a series of extensive hearings. The public inquiry will examine everything from the tactics of undercover police officers and current stop-and-frisk guidelines to the oversight functions of agencies like the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Internal Affairs Division of the NYPD.
The hearings, to be jointly convened by Council’s civil rights and public safety committees, will be coupled with a series of Council-sponsored public meetings held throughout the city on related police issues. At the conclusion of the hearings, Council is slated to present its findings and recommendations to Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “I’d like to see the public’s faith in the police department restored,” said Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., chairman of the public safety committee. “We need to ensure that if any changes need to occur inside the police department, that they happen, in order to prevent future tragedies.”
In the aftermath of the Bell shooting, many of the details surrounding the incident remain the subject of fierce debate between the NYPD, the Detectives Endowment Association, representing four of the five police officers involved, and law enforcement observers and critics.
At approximately 4 a.m. on Nov. 25, four undercover NYPD detectives and one police officer in plainclothes fired fifty bullets at Bell and two friends shortly after they left the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica. One of the five, Detective Mike Oliver, is said to have fired some 31 bullets. Published accounts state that some of the officers perceived a threat after allegedly witnessing Bell and his friends in a verbal altercation with another group of men outside the club and hearing one of Bell’s party threaten to retrieve a gun from Bell’s gray Nissan Altima. No weapon was ever found in the vehicle or in the possession of any of the men. Bell, who was at the wheel and may have been intoxicated, according to a recently released toxicology report, apparently struck an unmarked police van twice as he attempted to leave the scene. That’s when officers are said to have fired at the car. Bell’s surviving companions say the detectives did not identify themselves before shooting; NYPD maintains they did.
For many, the Bell case reflects the need for changes to NYPD procedures and guidelines, some of which were proposed in the wake of the fatal, controversial police shootings of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and Patrick Dorismond in 2000. The following are some of the recommendations circulating among criminal justice advocates and experts:
Two Drink Maximum: Current guidelines allow undercover officers, like those monitoring Kalua Cabaret, to drink a maximum of two alcoholic beverages in order to blend into their surroundings. But it’s a policy that has come under fire after the Bell shooting. “It’s ridiculous. How do we know if they’re only having two drinks? And how can an officer be efficient at using his weapon if he’s been drinking anyway?” asks Kamau Karl Franklin, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
And while Councilmember Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens), a former NYPD officer, supports the two-drink allowance for undercover officers, he also believes it should be mandatory for them to receive breathalyzer tests. “We require that our bus drivers and train operators be required to take them after an accident, so why can’t our officers be tested?” asked Monserrate.
Published accounts say that one of the officers who used his weapon drank inside the Kalua Cabaret, but police officials dispute the report. “An assistant chief saw all of the officers involved in the immediate aftermath of the Jamaica shooting, and found them fit for duty, meaning none was intoxicated,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told City Limits.
Still, the use of portable breathalyzers may be gaining support inside the police department. “I’ve discussed that with Commissioner Kelly and he did not seem opposed to that idea,” says Vallone. “I think the more important question is that anyone who has been drinking should be kept away from engaging in any direct action.”
Lights and Sirens: Noel Leader, a retired NYPD sergeant and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based advocacy group 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care, believes it should be mandatory for undercover officers to carry portable sirens and lights in their unmarked vehicles. “We understand the need to avoid detection,” says Leader. “But you can’t just roll up on people in an unmarked Lexus or Mercedes-Benz with tricked-out rims and expect them to know who are you are.”
While it remains unclear whether undercover officers in the Bell case actually possessed portable sirens and lights at the time of the shooting, the NYPD defends its current procedures. “While not always, unmarked police cars are typically equipped with behind-the-grill lights and sirens,” said Browne of the NYPD. Other observers, however, question whether the police should even be engaged in nightclub surveillance.
“If you look at a functioning democratic society, police should play a pretty minimal role. If you see a troubled society, police have a bigger role,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and professor of police studies at John Jay College. “There’s a whole list of things that police shouldn’t be involved in as the first responders, and nightclub enforcement is right up there with mental health, homelessness and a whole set of other things that they’re being forced to handle.”
Hollow-Point Bullets: In 1998 under former Commissioner Howard Safir, the NYPD formally adopted the use of hollow-point bullets, which continues today. Law enforcement officials argued that these bullets were less likely than the previously used full metal jacket bullets to ricochet and strike an innocent bystander. Yet critics argue that hollow point ammunition used with semiautomatic guns is more likely to result in deadly force by causing a greater number of bullets to be fired and more internal damage to the body upon contact. “There isn’t a need for it,” said Franklin, the CCR attorney. “The shooting in Queens is a clear indication of what happens when you’re using rapid-fire weapons with extremely lethal bullets.”
But O’Donnell counters that an NYPD study released last December shows that police officers in the city are involved in fewer shootings compared to departments in other big cities – even though the number of fatal shooting incidents by police increased from nine in 2005 to thirteen last year.
“I know you swim upstream when you make this point, but the NYPD has an extraordinary record of restraint. There are many things broken in the police department, like the way they look for missing persons, but as tragic as the incident in Queens is, deadly force isn’t one of them,” says O’Donnell.
Still, the use of hollow-point bullets will be one of the issues examined at the upcoming Council hearings – even though it is the number of shots, not their type, that is mainly at issue in the Bell case. “You never want to put police officers in a position where they’re in a gun fight with people who have superior weaponry,” says Vallone. “But public safety concerns also have to be addressed, so this is something we’re going to take testimony on.”
Community Relations and Policing: No examination into NYPD policies, criminal justice advocates say, will be complete without a closer look at the role of race. While some of the officers involved in the Bell shooting are themselves black or Latino, it is widely contended that men of color are still disproportionately stopped and frisked or subjected to greater force.
“After Diallo, there was a package of legislation in the New York state assembly that sought to address some of those concerns, but it failed to become actual law,” Councilmember Monserrate said. “Sometimes when you’re taking a firm stand on advancing civil liberties, you’re branded as anti-law enforcement. I believe that cops have to go after the bad guys without shooting innocent people. Those concepts don’t conflict with one another.”
According to Noel Leader from 100 Blacks, the NYPD in recent years has emphasized the number of arrests and summonses issued at the expense of forging solid community relations in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “We see harassment on a daily basis, and there’s a level of disrespect that trickles down from the top,” Leader said.
But the Bell incident could serve as a chance for both a wide-ranging conversation on the nature of policing, and for systemic change, contends O’Donnell of John Jay. “After Diallo, we saw all the angst and anger and people moved on,” he says. “Talking about policy isn’t sexy, but there’s a real opportunity here for us to try to fix many of the things that are broken in our criminal justice system.”