In the two weeks since Queens District Attorney Richard Brown formally unsealed indictment charges against three NYPD detectives in the fatal shooting of Queens resident Sean Bell, politicians and policymakers have continued to address a major question hanging over the case: what can be done to avoid another such incident in the future? The New York City Council will soon reconvene a series of hearings that many criminal justice advocates hope could lead to reform on a range of NYPD policies and procedures.
The public hearings, which began in January and are jointly sponsored by Council’s Public Safety and Civil Rights committees, were assembled in response to the Nov. 2006 incident in which Bell, 23, and his friends Joseph Guzman, 31, and Trent Benefield, 23, all of whom were unarmed, were shot in a hail of fifty bullets fired by five plainclothes NYPD detectives outside the Kalua Cabaret in the Jamaica section of Queens.
The first Council hearing, a sometimes-testy session at City Hall which featured testimony from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly on an assortment of NYPD policies including the rule allowing undercover detectives to consume a two alcoholic drinks while on duty, was followed by another public inquiry on March 9, which examined the efficiency of oversight agencies like the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Internal Affairs Bureau.
Two more hearings are planned, including one that will probe the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy using recently disclosed data that showed that more than 500,000 people were stopped by police officers last year. In addition, both Council committees continue to hold police-related public assemblies at venues throughout the five boroughs. According to Councilmember Peter Vallone (D-Queens), chairman of the public safety committee, the forums have provided a worthwhile outlet for both fact-finding and airing grievances from neighborhood residents.
“They’ve been going very well. These hearings are designed to learn from the Sean Bell tragedy,” Vallone said. “And we’d also like to try and open up new lines of communication between the NYPD and members of the community because most problems that exist now come from a lack of communication.”
The police officers, who had the nightclub under surveillance over a range of apparent violations, maintain that they witnessed a confrontation involving Bell and his friends on the verge of escalation, and further perceived a threat after Bell struck an unmarked police van with his Nissan Altima. Both Guzman and Benefield, however, insist that detectives failed to identify themselves when they approached Bell’s vehicle with their weapons drawn and opened fire. Detectives Michael Oliver, who fired 31 shots, and Gescard Isnora, who shot 11 bullets, both face first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, while Detective Marc Cooper received a second-degree reckless endangerment charge.
After a recent forum at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, Anthony Moore, 27, said he hopes that the hearings can produce tangible results. “I’ve heard a lot of politicians talk and talk, so we’ll see what happens,” he says. “I know all police officers aren’t bad, but sometimes I feel that when I see one on the street and make eye contact, then I’m asking for trouble. Something needs to be done for police officers to show respect to the young black men they come across and not treat them like criminals.”
But the hearings have also drawn intense criticism from detractors in various quarters. “We have no confidence in [Council Speaker] Christine Quinn, [Bronx Councilmember and chairman of the civil rights committee] Larry Seabrook or Peter Vallone,” says Noel Leader, retired NYPD sergeant and co-founder of the group 100 Blacks In Law Enforcement Who Care. “Before they even took testimony at the first hearing, they’re commending the police commissioner for an excellent job instead of taking an objective stance. The hearings are a farce because they’ve already made their conclusions.”
That’s a contention that Vallone dismisses. “We’re talking about a group that believes that Commissioner Kelly should be removed, so it’s hard to put much credence to what they’re saying.”
Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn), who stormed out of the first hearing, contends that the forums will result in few, if any, concrete results. “Peter Vallone and Larry Seabrook are pathetic apologists for the police department. I doubt I’ll be attending any more of them,” he scoffed. “We’ve had hearings, studies and more hearings. When is the council going to show real leadership? We should be working on legislation for things like setting up permanent city residency requirements for police officers. The NYPD is breaking the law right now by not supplying us with stop-and-frisk numbers from 2003 through 2005, so it doesn’t matter what the Council tries to put into place if they can’t enforce what’s on the books right now.”
The NYPD did not respond to requests from City Limits for comment on whether the release of the stop-and-frisk figures for those years were forthcoming in compliance with the Police Reporting Law of 2001, which requires the NYPD to report those statistics to Council on a quarterly basis. “Right now we’re reviewing all of our options to create compliance and that includes the possibility of a lawsuit,” said Vallone.
In the midst of the Sean Bell case, which has divided the public over race and policing despite the ethnic makeup of the detectives involved – they are both black and white, while the victims all were black – other criminal justice observers fear that highly contentious hearings would only add rancor to an already polarized atmosphere. “I think there are genuine issues like [that of] undercover units being overused,” notes Peter Moskos, professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer in Baltimore. “But there’s also a danger of over-reaching and trying to mandate things from those who may not have the law enforcement expertise, so it would be good to see the City Council and the NYPD work together.”
Michael Palladino, who as president of the Detectives Endowment Association – the detectives’ union – has been outspoken on this case, questions the timing of the hearings. “I understand the Council’s right to conduct them. What I don’t understand is the strategy to hold them all over the city before the grand jury had convened. And there’s still a danger of making a knee-jerk reaction before evidence in the trial has even been presented,” Palladino said.
In response to some Council members’ criticism of the rule that allows undercover officers to drink alcohol while conducting surveillance, Palladino argued that “undercover officers have to make every effort to fit into their environment and not risk compromising themselves.” Debate over the policy is “an attempt to manipulate the public by Al Sharpton and others given that none of the officers in this case was drunk, but Mr. Bell was according to the toxicology report,” he added.
Like the fatal 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in which officers from the now-defunct Street Crimes Unit fired 41 bullets at an unarmed man, the Bell incident has troubled some criminal justice advocates and experts about NYPD’s firearms and shooting policy. In response, the NYPD enlisted the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corporation to assess its firearms training procedures. A RAND spokeswoman reserved comment while the review is ongoing.
Christopher Ortiz, a former police officer with the NYPD and the Nassau County Police Department and present deputy director of the Center for Security and Disaster Response at the NY Institute of Technology, believes that incidents like the Bell shooting and other apparent episodes of so-called “contagious shooting,” however rare, can be made even rarer. He recommends the NYPD decreasing its reliance on FATS – the Firearms Training System which incorporates video simulation of dangerous scenarios – in favor of more reality-based training techniques. The NYPD has long conducted some urban training at its Rodman’s Neck Firing Range in the Bronx.
“With suburban police departments you can engage in more role-playing scenarios because they’re smaller, but any time you can use training that unfolds in real time, it’s really helpful,” says Ortiz. “But whatever firearms policy they use, there needs to be an emphasis placed on strengthening community-oriented policing.”
After the hearings have concluded later this year, the Council will then issue its report and make recommendations to Commissioner Kelly. Vallone hopes that the proceedings will have long-term impact, which he argues requires some patience despite the heated atmosphere of the Bell case. “This isn’t just about performing our oversight duties here, we’re trying to improve relations between the police and the city,” he says. “It’s going to take some time to ensure that whatever changes need to happen inside the police department take place.”