Wednesday, November 29, 2006

BOB HERBERT: Badges, Guns and Another Unarmed Victim

This time it was 50 shots from five officers. With Amadou Diallo it was 41 shots from four officers. With Eleanor Bumpurs, an aging, overweight, disoriented grandmother, it was a pair of shotgun blasts from a single officer — inside her apartment!

The decades pass. The stories remain the same. Nathaniel Gaines Jr., a 25-year-old Navy veteran, was shot to death by a cop on a subway platform in the Bronx on the Fourth of July in 1996. The mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, no softy on crime, said of the shooting: “There does not seem to be any reason for it.”

On an April morning in 1973 a veteran cop named Thomas Shea pulled his service revolver and blew away a black kid on a street in Jamaica, Queens. There was no reason on God’s glittering earth for that killing. The kid, Clifford Glover, was 10 years old. The cop shot him in the back.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 an officer named Robert Torsney fired a bullet into the head of Randolph Evans, 15, outside a housing project in Brooklyn. No one could explain that killing, either.

Yesterday, under an overcast sky and with a crush of reporters around them, the relatives and fiancée of Sean Bell visited the narrow street in Queens where he was killed in a sudden frantic fusillade of police bullets early last Saturday morning, just a few hours before he was to be married.

Mr. Bell and two friends who had attended his bachelor party at a nearby club were in his car when they were set upon by a group of undercover cops who had been staking out the club. The two friends were seriously wounded in the shooting.

Here is my first quick take on this case: If I was in my car outside a rowdy nightclub in the wee hours of the morning and someone who looked like a club patron came running toward me, screaming and waving a gun, I would immediately slam the gearshift into drive, hit the accelerator and try to get the hell out of there.

This appears to be what happened. The cops, dressed to blend in with the club crowd, were single-mindedly looking for trouble — evidence of prostitution, underage drinking, illegal guns, and so forth. They were looking so hard for criminal behavior that they seem to have imagined it where none was occurring.

One officer is said to have believed that one of Mr. Bell’s companions may have had a gun. No gun was found and there is no evidence that any of the three men were armed at any time.

“It sounds to me like excessive force was used,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who characterized the 50-shot barrage as “unacceptable” and “inexplicable.” Referring to Mr. Bell and his two friends, the mayor said, “There is no evidence that they were doing anything wrong.”

The thing that is most unacceptable about this case is not the total number of shots fired, but the fact that five New York City cops were so willing to begin firing at all — willing to take the life of another human being, and maybe a number of human beings — without ever establishing that there was a good reason for doing so.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, there is a much better tone in the city with regard to police-community relations, and race relations in general. But when it comes to the Police Department, an improved tone won’t count for much if policies and procedures aren’t changed to prevent cops from blowing away innocent individuals with impunity.

This has gone on for far too many decades. Yet there is still no sense among public officials that big changes are necessary. The cops who killed Sean Bell and wounded his two friends haven’t even been questioned yet by the police or investigators from the Queens district attorney’s office. The D.A., Richard Brown, is preparing a grand jury investigation but he told me it could still be weeks before the cops are questioned.

Meanwhile, the community, which is sick of these killings, is simmering. Along with the candles and flower arrangements that have been placed at the site of the shooting were bitter signs denouncing “police murder” and, in some instances, calling for violence.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who represents the Bell family, has publicly called for patience and calm. But he added, and I agree, that the mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have an obligation to develop effective new strategies for reining in reckless police behavior.

The crucial first step, in my opinion, is to insist that police officers, including those who are black, recognize the essential humanity of all the people they are supposed to be protecting and serving. Not everyone with dark skin is a perp.

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