Less than 24 hours after Queens Supreme Justice Arthur Cooperman acquitted three New York City police officers last week of manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges in the fatal 2006 shooting of Sean Bell, a federal Justice Department probe into the case was announced and street protests sprang up citywide.
But the controversial verdict has also re-ignited a debate among law enforcement experts, elected officials and criminal justice advocates over whether an array of NYPD tactics and procedures should be overhauled to prevent future incidents like the Bell shooting.
Bell died at age 23 in the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2006, after a squad of undercover police detectives conducted a drug and prostitution sting at Club Kalua in the Jamaica section of Queens. Bell was killed, and two friends were seriously wounded when they were struck in a hail of 50 bullets fired by five NYPD officers, who said they believed that the men tried to retrieve a gun from the car Bell was driving. But all three men were unarmed and no weapon was recovered from the scene.
The case was immediately compared to the fatal 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who was killed outside his Bronx apartment building when officers from the NYPD’s now-defunct Street Crimes Unit fired 41 bullets after they wrongly suspected that he possessed a gun.
Weeks after the Bell shooting, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly appointed a nine-member panel of NYPD commanders to review the training and supervision of officers who conduct undercover operations. Last June, Commissioner Kelly announced that he would adopt a number of its recommendations, including mandatory Breathalyzer tests for both on and off-duty police officers involved in deadly shootings and psychological exams for those eligible to serve as undercover operatives. By late April, 15 of the 19 recommendations had been implemented, according to NYPD chief spokesman Paul Browne, who provided this
The NYPD’s firearms training – along with the “contagious shooting” phenomenon that apparently played a role in both the Diallo and Bell shootings – is currently being studied by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corporation. A RAND spokesperson tells City Limits that its report is forthcoming.
Meanwhile, a series of City Council hearings, jointly sponsored by the Public Safety and Civil Rights committees, which began in Jan. 2007 to examine a range of issues, from the oversight role of the Civilian Complaint Review Board to specific NYPD policing tactics, will soon reconvene with a session on stop-and-frisk procedures (which, though not an issue in the Bell case, have been widely criticized as a form of minority-focused harassment).
And while Council will present its own recommendations to Commissioner Kelly after the hearings have formally concluded, some criminal justice observers fear that the NYPD won’t adopt additional reform measures for undercover officers after implementing new policies – such as mandatory sobriety tests – based on its internal review. (See City Limits Weekly #568, Jan. 2, 2007, Policing Experts Recommend Ways of Avoiding Another Bell Tragedy.)
“I don’t think the NYPD feels as though it has to make any major concessions at this stage,” argues Kamau Karl Franklin, a civil rights attorney and Racial Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The department guideline that enables undercover officers to drink a maximum of two alcoholic beverages during the course of a sting operation, which NYPD officials and law enforcement experts have argued enables them to effectively blend into environments, continues to draw sharp criticism in the aftermath of the Bell case. “Milling around and looking like a patron at a club is one thing,” says Franklin. “But consuming alcohol affects the reaction and thought process of anyone, including an undercover officer.”
But Noel Leader, a retired NYPD sergeant and co-founder of the Brooklyn based-advocacy group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, contends that officers in plainclothes can drink “in certain capacities” as long as they’re prevented from using guns. “Where was the supervision?” asks Leader. “What happened in the Bell case where officers who drank inside the club and then carried out law enforcement activities never should have happened.”
Following complaints made by City Councilman Peter F. Vallone, Jr., who chairs the Public Safety Committee, about the infrequent delivery of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk statistics to Council in compliance with the required quarterly reporting in the Police Reporting Law of 2001 – as well as the threat of a lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights – criminal justice advocates will be closely observing the upcoming hearing on stop-and-frisks. (For more on the hearings and the law, see City Limits Weekly #582, April 2, 2007, In Bell Case, Desire For Change Meets Slow Political Process.)
But some activists aren’t optimistic. “The whole thing is a farce,” complains Leader. “The City Council is the closest branch of the government that relates to the people, yet they’ve allowed Commissioner Kelly to consistently ignore their law. Well, we’ve been consistent in criticizing the Council for doing so.”
Eugene O’Donnell, professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is heartened to see Council doing some oversight. “There needs to be a more robust give-and-take,” said O’Donnell, a former police officer, who criticized what he calls “overpolicing” in general.
“A lot of people want cops to be pretty aggressive, so the politicians are [limited] in that sense. But we have to get to a place where we begin to evaluate the proper role and function of police officers in society.”
This story has been updated to include the NYPD’s assessment reflecting the status of its incorporation of the Committee for the Review of Undercover Procedures’ 19 recommendations. 5/5/08