Three New York Police Department (NYPD) detectives have been acquitted of all charges in the killing of Sean Bell, on his wedding day as he left a bachelor party at a strip club. This resolution of this very emotional case is going to be, to put it mildly, controversial. An AP report is here, and a New York Times account is here.
In a nutshell, the shooting happened after the police apparently overheard a conversation between Mr. Bell and others outside the strip club; concluded that Mr. Bell might be going to his vehicle for a weapon; and confronted Mr. Bell after he got into his car. The shooting began when Mr. Bell did not raise his hands when commanded, and tried to leave the scene (striking one detective and another unmarked police vehicle while doing so). Mr. Bell then died in what the AP piece linked above calls a "hail of gunfire" -- 50 rounds from five policemen (three were charged, two were not).
I have not followed the case closely, and I'll leave the serious discussion to those who have. But given the facts as they are being presented this morning, this sounds like a deadly mixture of circumstances: early morning and darkness (the shooting occurred at 4:15 a.m.); suspicious officers (the club was being investigated as a prostitution venue); Mr. Bell's failure to understand his situation (he may not have understood that the people carrying guns asking him to get out of the car were police); the overheard conversation (the police may have gotten it wrong, or taken what was overheard out of context); semi-automatic weapons and a sketchy situation suddenly turning violent.
The type of weapon carried by the police may have been important. One of the officers, Detective Gescard Isonara, who fired 11 rounds, carried what the New York Times describes as a "Glock." I am assuming that this refers to the one of the several variants of the Glock 9mm pistol. The weapon, produced in Austria, is used by police and military forces all over the world. I further assume that the other officers had similar weapons. My point is that the Glock is a semi-automatic pistol (sometimes called a self-loader). When the weapon is cocked and fired in semi-automatic mode, each pull of the trigger chambers the next round, and the weapon can then be fired again without the need for working the slide to cock it.
The AP piece says that Mr. Bell's companions that night (who were wounded), testified that "the maelstrom erupted without warning" and the prosecutors tried to show that Mr. Bell and his friends were "minding their own business" and that the police were "inept, trigger-happy aggressors." The defense contended that Mr. Bell and his friends were "drunk" and the police believed that they were "armed and dangerous." There was also testimony about another man who fled the scene, and who may, or may not, have been armed.
Maybe both sides were sort of right ?
The police approached Mr. Bell believing he was "armed and dangerous." Mr. Bell, minding his own business, may have had no idea that the people approaching his vehicle were police. The police were undercover: maybe Mr. Bell saw the guns before the badges and fled from people with guns, not knowing they were police ? In any case, Mr. Bell seems not to have comprehended (remember, it was dark, very early after a long night and he'd been in a club) that he was in an "official" situation where he needed to stop, and to cooperate; and he did not appreciate quickly enough that he was in a situation in which he needed to be very careful.
It sounds to me very much like, when the situation outside the club went bad, that the police confused shots fired by their fellow-officers (the officers were in "different locations" on the street, the verdict said) with non-existent return fire from Mr. Bell. The sudden escalation of the situation, loud reports from five pistols in darkness, fear and a moving vehicle striking another all could have combined to make the officers think that they were under fire; so they simply kept pulling triggers, quitting when they ran out of ammunition, or there was a long enough pause between discharges to think. With semi-automatic pistols in the equation, there could be (and apparently was) quite a bit of shooting, very quickly.
Reading our newspapers at the breakfast table, or staring at the computer from the comfort of our desk-chairs, it's easy from hindsight to criticize the officers, conclude that they were trigger-happy, and should have had the book thrown at them. But 99 percent of us reading this have never been walking targets; never been watching a club where we've been briefed that illegal activity might be going on; never confronted somebody whom we think might be "armed and dangerous;" and, hearing bullets suddenly fired in darkness and anger -- never been scared absolutely to death trying to work out who was doing the shooting, where the shooter was, or what to do next. Would any of us -- given the situation presented to the detectives -- have done any better ? Avoided a death ? We'd all like to think so.
But the police turned out to be completely, tragically, wrong. Mr. Bell should not have died. To everyone's sadness, there is no way to undo that.