Sean Bell

The Sean Bell shooting incident took place in the New York City borough of Queens on November 25, 2006, in which one Latino and two African-American men were shot at a total of fifty times by a team of both plainclothes and undercover NYPD officers (two of whom were themselves African-American), killing one of the men, Sean Bell, on the morning of his wedding day, and severely wounding two of his friends.[1] The incident sparked fierce criticism of the police from some members of the public and drew comparisons to the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo.[2] Three of the five detectives involved in the shooting went to trial [3] on charges ranging from manslaughter to reckless endangerment, and were found not guilty.

Sean Bell (May 18, 1983November 25, 2006) was the nephew of the University of Miami basketball coach Frank Haith.[5] As a teenager, he studied acting in Flushing, Queens.[6] He was a pitcher for John Adams High School in Ozone Park. His senior year season ended with an 11-0 record, a 2.30 E.R.A. and 97 strikeouts in 62.2 innings.[citation needed] Bell held odd jobs after the birth of his daughter. His former fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, told Larry King that Bell was an electrician by trade and in between jobs when the shooting occurred.[7]

Bell had been arrested three times, twice for drug dealing and once for a firearms possession.[8] In all cases, he was released on his own recognizance.[9] The New York Daily News reported that, according to unnamed law enforcement sources, Bell sold crack cocaine twice to a confidential police informant in August 2006.[10]

The two men who were injured by the police, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, had been arrested nine and three times, respectively, each having been arrested at least once for illegal firearm possession.[8] Guzman had been previously arrested for armed robbery, spending two separate terms in a state prison.[8] Benefield had a sealed record as a juvenile for gun possession and robbery. [8]

[edit] Shooting incident

The night of the shooting, Bell was holding his bachelor party at Club Kalua in the Jamaica section of Queens, a venue that was being investigated by seven undercover police detectives, as a result of accusations that the owners of the club had been fostering prostitution.[11]

The New York Post reported that, according to an unnamed undercover officer, Guzman had an argument inside the club with a woman and threatened to get a gun. One of Bell’s friends was heard to say “yo, get my gun” as they left the scene.[12] Fearing a shooting might occur, the detective followed the men to their car while alerting his backup team, prompting the team to confront Bell and his companions before they could leave the scene.[12] The undercover, plain-clothed officer who allegedly never identified his status[13] ordered Bell to raise his hands after getting in his car. Instead, Bell accelerated the car and hit Gescard Isnora then an unmarked police minivan.[2] A toxicology report showed that he was legally intoxicated at the time of the shooting. An attorney for the Bell family said in response to the report, “No matter what his blood-alcohol level was, he’s a victim.”[14]

Other accounts of the incident conflict with that of the undercover officers. According to Guzman and lawyer Michael Hardy, the detectives never identified themselves while they approached the vehicle with drawn weapons.[10] Another source also told New York Daily News that the officers failed to warn Bell before opening fire and started firing immediately upon leaving their vehicles.[15]

The police officer who initiated the gunfire later said that he saw a fourth man in the car, who fled the scene amid the chaos, possibly in possession of the alleged weapon. Jean Nelson, a friend of Bell, was speculated to have been the fourth man. Although present at the time of the shooting, Nelson denies being in the car or possessing a gun.[16][17] According to The New York Times, a preliminary police report of the shooting contains

“… no meaningful discussion of a fourth man, a mysterious figure who some in the Police Department have suggested may have been present along with the three men who were shot. None of the witnesses whose accounts are in the report speaks of someone who may have fled — perhaps possessing a gun — and there are no indications that the police at the time were seeking anyone who may have left the scene.”[18]

Critics suggest that the scenario was concocted by the police officer in order to justify the shooting.[16] Columnist Juan Gonzalez reported in the New York Daily News that, according to a law enforcement source, in the hours immediately following the incident, there was no mention of a fourth man in the police calls and no search was launched for the potentially armed man. This source thus contradicted initial reports that the police searched the neighborhood for the missing man.[19]

According to Michael Palladino, the head of the detectives union, a man who was working as a janitor in a nearby building while the incident occurred later told the detectives that he had seen a black man fleeing the scene, and that the man had fired a gun, at least once, at the police. The witness further stated that he had then heard the officers shouting “police, police.” However, according to ballistic evidence, there was no indication of any other weapon, aside from those of the officers, fired at the scene.[20]

In an interview on Larry King Live, accompanying Bell’s former fiancée Nicole Paultre, Al Sharpton stated that according to his conversations with eyewitnesses, none of the three men who were shot mentioned a gun while leaving the club. Sharpton also felt that it would be impossible for the persons in the car to have heard the police from within the car, and that they were likely to fear that they were being car-jacked. [7] Several of the witnesses received payment from Sharpton, and several groups, including the NYPD Detectives union have questioned the ethics of these payments, calling into question the witnesses’ credibility, to which Sharpton has replied, “How can [the Detectives Endowment Association] support the detectives and I can’t support the victims?” [21]

Five of the seven officers investigating the club were involved in the shooting. Detective Paul Headley fired one round, Officer Michael Carey fired three, Officer Marc Cooper fired four, Officer Gescard Isnora fired eleven, and veteran officer Michael Oliver emptied two full magazines, firing 31 shots from a 9mm handgun and pausing to reload at least once.[22][23][24][25]

An autopsy showed Bell was struck four times in the neck and torso.[26] Guzman, 31, was shot 19 times[27] and Benefield, 23, who was in the back seat, was hit three times. Both men were taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital; at the time of admission Guzman was listed in critical condition and Benefield was in stable condition. Guzman and Benefield would ultimately survive the shooting.[22] Benefield was released from the hospital on 5 December 2006,[28] while Guzman was released on 25 January 2007.[29] Surveillance cameras at the Port Authority‘s Jamaica AirTrain station a half block away from the shooting site recorded one of the bullets fired by the officers shattering through the station’s glass window and narrowly missing a civilian and two Port Authority patrolmen who were standing on the station’s elevated platform.[19][30]

[edit] Response to the shooting

Hundreds of protesters came out over the weekend following Bell’s death to protest the amount of force used; protests continued into the following week.[31][32]

Some have noted the similarity between this incident and past shootings of unarmed people, such as Amadou Diallo and Ousmane Zongo.[2][33] The family has designated Al Sharpton as their advisor.[34]

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has said “it sounds to me like excessive force was used,”[35] and has called the shooting “inexplicable” and “unacceptable”.[34] Ex-New York governor George E. Pataki has also stated that the shooting was excessive.[34] Kelly has put the five officers involved on paid administrative leave and stripped them of their weapons, a move the New York Times called “forceful”.[34] He told the Times that the officers were stripped of their guns because “there were, and are, too many unanswered questions.”[34] Both Bloomberg and Kelly have also noted that the shooting was possibly in violation of department guidelines prohibiting shooting at a moving vehicle, even if the vehicle is being used as a weapon.[36] The Public Advocate extended condolences to Bell’s former fiancée and family following the killing.[37]

On December 7, 2006, Nicole Paultre legally changed her name to Nicole Paultre Bell to “honor the memory” of Sean Bell.[38] New York State laws require a couple to obtain a marriage license prior to a wedding, and “although the marriage license is issued immediately, the marriage ceremony may not take place within 24 hours from the exact time that the license was issued.”[39] According to Nicole Paultre’s attorney, a posthumous wedding was impossible since no marriage license had yet been signed.[38]

On March 5, 2007, it was announced that a Rikers Island inmate offered to pay an undercover police officer posing as a hit man to behead New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly and bomb police headquarters in retaliation for the incident.[40][41]

On March 25, 2007, New York Daily News reported that an unnamed Queens drug dealer, after being arrested, alleged that Sean Bell had shot him the previous year on July 13, 2006 over a drug turf dispute. Police sources called the drug dealer’s account credible, but could not rule out the possibility of the drug dealer falsely identifying Sean Bell to garner favor with authorities. Sanford Rubenstein, (the attorney representing the Bell family, Nicole Paultre, and the two other occupants of the vehicle that were wounded during the shooting) denounced this development, saying, “We expected them to throw dirt at us and they are throwing dirt at us.” NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau detectives say the dealer’s tale has no direct bearing on the police shooting of Bell, though some legal experts said that it could help the defense by portraying Sean Bell as possibly armed and dangerous.[42]

[edit] Investigation and criminal indictment

At that time, some activists have called for a special prosecutor in the case, but then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer said he did not see the need for it[28] although Attorney-General Andrew Cuomo promised to keep a watch on the criminal proceedings. The Queens district attorney‘s office interviewed over 100 witnesses and presented more than 500 exhibits to a grand jury.[43] An issue considered by the grand jury was the New York State Penal Code’s description of circumstances under which a police officer can use deadly force, “The use of deadly physical force is necessary to defend the police officer or peace officer or another person from what the officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.”[44][45]

On March 16, 2007, three of the five police officers involved in the shooting were indicted by a grand jury. Officer Gescard Isnora, who fired the first shot, and Officer Michael Oliver, who fired 31 of the 50 shots, faced charges of manslaughter, reckless endangerment and assault; while Detective Marc Cooper faced the lesser charge of two counts of reckless endangerment.[43] All three detectives pleaded not guilty at the arraignment hearing on March 19, 2007. Detectives Isnora and Oliver were released on bail and Detective Cooper on his own recognizance.[43]

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, Second Department, denied a motion by the detectives’ attorneys to move the trial to a venue outside of Queens. Following the adverse ruling, the detectives waived a jury trial and instead submitted to a bench trial.

The District Attorney Richard Brown has faced some criticism from activists who believe he did not question the police officers involved quickly enough.[46]

[edit] Acquittal on all charges

On April 25, 2008, all three of the police officers indicted were acquitted on all counts. The defendants opted to have Justice Arthur J. Cooperman make a ruling rather than a jury. The ruling was handed down in a state supreme court in Queens.[47]

In the ruling, Justice Cooperman cited the fact that testimony by Guzman, and Benefield did not make sense. He also cited the fact that they had a pending 50 million dollar lawsuit against the city. After the ruling was made, the family, led by Sharpton and several others went to Bell’s graveside in Port Washington, Long Island for a memorial service. Sharpton, Bell’s family, and the rest of the crowd left after the services without incident.

[edit] “Slowdown” protest

On May 7, 2008, Sharpton led a series of protests in New York City. Hundreds took to the streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn as part of the citywide “slowdown” effort led by Sharpton and his National Action Network. The crowd made its way to the streets stopping the flow of traffic in many vital areas of the city. This led to police action, and the arrest of over 200 people, including Sharpton himself. Sharpton was arrested without incident at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Bell’s parents, his former fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, and the two shooting victims who survived, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman were also arrested.


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