The need to look outside
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES)
Waiting for Answers
By BOB HERBERT
Published: December 7, 2006
I don’t know whether the undercover cops who shot and killed Sean Bell and wounded his two friends should be criminally indicted. I wasn’t there and not enough information has emerged publicly to make a determination.
What I do know is that the investigation of this shooting in Jamaica, Queens, in which the victims were unarmed and seemed to have no intention of threatening the police, is not being conducted in a timely or effective fashion.
While the local community is seething with anger over the shooting, there are investigators scrambling like mad to find dirt to throw on the victims and locate any evidence that might, however remotely, tend to justify the shooting. But the authorities have not even asked the cops, who fired 50 bullets at the car with the three men inside, what happened. That is insane.
The office of the Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, is leading the investigation into the shooting. For procedural reasons that have to do with concerns about inadvertently conferring some degree of immunity on the officers, the D.A. has asked the Police Department not to interview the officers who shot at the car.
A veteran investigator told me yesterday that there have been several meetings in the D.A.’s office about the Sean Bell case but that Mr. Brown and his top aides are not yet sure how to proceed.
The truth is that neither the Police Department nor the district attorneys in New York are equipped to properly investigate controversial police shootings. The prosecutors and the cops have a special, co-dependent relationship that exists around-the-clock, year-in and year-out. They work together all the time on criminal cases and other matters. They view one another as members of a close-knit criminal justice family. They watch each other’s backs.
When cops are involved in shootings that may not seem justified, there is an instinctive institutional response from other cops and prosecutors to close ranks around the accused officers. The instinct is to protect them, not to indict them.
There is an inherent and apparently insurmountable conflict of interest at work when district attorneys investigate cases of alleged police brutality. It’s time for New York to face up to this. It’s time to establish a truly independent office — perhaps a special state prosecutor, or a permanent, fully staffed independent office at the district attorney’s level — to investigate this type of police misconduct.
A special investigative office, which could look at these incidents and encounters only after the fact, is not enough. There is also a need for Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to become proactive, to acknowledge that racism is still an issue in the Police Department and to overhaul police training and address poisonous police attitudes in an effort to prevent these senseless tragedies.
The last thing the NYPD wants is the state police to investigate them. It is also what is probably needed. The NYPD knows they have a bad shooting and every day since it happen has tried to make the defendents look like criminal liars. Despite no evidence of a gun, a fourth man or anything else. They have illegally leaked their juvenile records in an attempt to establish their nefarious nature.
But that game no longer works. New York is a demographically different city than it was in the late 90's. Mike Bloomberg won reelection on black votes, votes driven by Freddie Ferrer's saying Diallo wasn't a murder. Despite the best efforts of Sharpton, that killed his campaign dead. Now, the bill is due. The old routine of platitudes while protecting the police no longer exist.
Funny, not one reporter has asked Giuliani about this shooting, I guess not to toss gas on a fire.
When the daily papers tried to vilify the transit workers, most people rejected it out of hand. Now, they have taken a much more cautious approach to this case. Something else, it isn't just Sharpton and the people to his left protesting, but the city's minority establishment.
Since Jimmy Breslin's and Leonard Levitt's retirement, Bob Herbert has been one of the few columninsts not to have a love affair with the NYPD. Make no mistake, local papers thrive on crime and police stories, usually with the word hero attached. When that narrative is flipped, then they have a hard time explaining what happened.
The cops are desperate to change the story, to make this into a case of potential bad guys instead of out of control cops making a fatal error in judgement. This not going to be explained away this time.
posted by Steve @ 9:37:00 AM