Saturday, December 09, 2006

50 Shots

Early in the morning, or too late at night depending on how you look at it, of November 25, 2006, Sean Bell was shot and killed by the police as he was leaving a nightclub with two friends. The two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were critically injured. Bell and his friends were at the nightclub for a bachelor party.

Sean Bell was killed on the day of his wedding.

According to news reports, the police - an unit of seven undercover officers who were at the club as pat of a sting operation targeting prostitution and drug dealing - fired 50 rounds. Twenty-one hit the car Bell and his friends were in – Bell was shot 7 times, Guzman 11 times and Benefield was shot 3 times.

Of the seven officers, only five fired their weapons – standard issue Glock 9mm semi-automatic handguns, with 15-round clips and one round in the chamber – and just one officer, an experienced veteran, fired 31 rounds, using up two full magazines and pausing to re-load once in between.

The officers said that Bell and his friends had had an altercation with another group at the nightclub and an officer who was in the club and behind the trio as they left heard one of them say that he would get his gun. The friends got into their car, the officer asked them to stop; Bell, who was driving, accelerated and hit the officer; the officer fired the first shots, the other police officers, waiting in an unmarked minivan drove up; Bell drove into the minivan, backed up and drove into it again. The police let loose their fusillade.

Bell and his friends never fired back and no gun was found, either on them or in the car or anywhere in the vicinity. They were unarmed.

The community accused the police of brutality and racism saying that Bell and his friends were targeted because they were black. The police said that the nightclub in question has a long history of crime and where many arrests have been made in the past and when they heard one of the three men mention a gun they had to take it seriously. When the men ran into one of the officers and then the car the police were in, they fired. It was regrettable but justified, the police said.

The terrible tragedy of the whole thing is that both are probably correct to an extent.

The three men have an altercation/ fight/ ‘words’ in the nightclub with another group of people. One of the three says, probably loudly, that he has a gun, or he will get his gun. They didn’t have a gun but obviously wanted to make the other group believe that they did. Unfortunately, the officer believed it too. So when they are asked to stop outside the club, they have just been in a fight in which threats with guns were made, they are unarmed, and they see a person in street clothes, obviously looking for trouble asking them to stop. In such a situation, my first instinct would be to gun the accelerator of my car and get the hell away too and if I manage to scare or hit the guy chasing me, so much the better.

But now the guy is firing and his friends show up in a car and they have guns! If Bell and his friends stay there, they’re going to get killed!! So they try to ram their way out and die in the hail of gunfire that follows.

But looking at it from the police officer’s side, one can also understand the situation. The undercover cop, who is alone in the night club, in street clothes to blend in and unarmed (he went back to the car to retrieve his weapon before approaching the three men) sees the fight/altercation in the nightclub, hears the bit about having/ getting a gun, follows the men outside and when he asks them to stop, they run into him with their car Then , when his back-up arrives, the three men run into that car too – twice, deliberately. The officer, hearing talk of the gun, had no reason not to believe it – after all this was a nightclub notorious or crime and where people with guns could reasonably be expected to be found. And when he and his colleagues were rammed by the three people in the car, that was clear and hostile intent, was it not? Thus, justifying the shooting.

Except that they fired 50 shots. Fifty.

One officer emptied the entire first clip, reloaded and then emptied the second clip. While two officers did not shoot at all. Why was there such a disparity in the number of shots fired? Why was one compelled to fire 31 times while two others thought they need not fire at all – in reacting to the same situation? Was the one over-zealous/ racist and the others prudent? Or was the one justified while the two others froze? Perhaps we will never know the answers to these questions.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” has a chapter on the other infamous New York shooting – that of Amadou Diallo who was shot 41 times. That took seven seconds and I’m guessing this incident in Queens went down pretty much in the same time frame. Although NYPD officers are trained to fire in bursts and stop after three shots to assess the situation, according to the testimony in the Diallo case, the NYPD manual “require(s) that… the first trigger pull being a conventional trigger pull and all subsequent trigger pulls being a hair trigger pull, and to further require that the ammunition that they carry be known as pointed full-metal jacket ammunition.”

I don’t think that for a veteran, trained police officer firing off 16 rounds, reloading and firing another 15 would have taken more than a few seconds especially given the “hair trigger” guns he was required to carry.

In his book, Mr. Gladwell also describes what he calls, “mind-blindness” – that when stress response is taken to an extreme and heart rates increases 175 the body shuts down all non-essential physiological activity. Is that what happened? Were the officers on the scene so focused on the immediate, the perceived threat that they literally could not see or hear anything else? Maybe.

But these were trained officers. Even if race was not a factor, and I believe it was – on both sides, it was extraordinarily inept police work. And a man is dead. And 50 shots were fired.

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