REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES)
Fatal Shootings by Police: Hard to Investigate, Even Harder to Prosecute
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Published: December 4, 2006
With Sean Bell now eulogized and buried, the emotions surrounding his death are swirling around the investigation into whether police officers committed a crime when they fired 50 bullets into Mr. Bell’s car.
Although every investigation is different, cases like that of Mr. Bell, an unarmed black man who was killed on his wedding day, have come to follow a similar rhythm and pattern. And experts and those involved in the investigation say that through the history of those cases, they have learned that it is very difficult to convince a grand jury or a trial jury that police officers, who are empowered to defend the public with deadly force if necessary, went too far. In many cases of police shootings, with tensions high, the facts and legal fine points are difficult to isolate from a much larger context.
“What makes these cases so hard are issues that go well beyond the incident itself,” a high-ranking official in the office of Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
“It’s the racial tension that still exists in the city,” the official continued. “It’s the mistrust in the minority community. It’s cops that are faced with danger every day and have to react in seconds. It’s safe to say, if they’re wrong, somebody dies” — whether a civilian or an officer.
Everyone involved knows the stakes. While the district attorney’s office investigates, civil rights activists and lawyers for the victims and the police officers are struggling to shape public opinion and find witnesses who buttress their points of view.
At a news conference yesterday at the scene of the shooting, some of those people called for an independent prosecutor, saying that a district attorney should not be investigating a police department he regularly deals with.
“They work with the cops on a daily basis, and they have a conflict of interest,” said Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer, at the news conference yesterday. He described the shooting as “an enormous minefield.”
But Mr. Brown said in a statement yesterday that calls for a special prosecutor “are neither helpful nor productive — nor are they in any respect justified.” He said earlier that his investigation would be “independent of that being conducted by the Police Department.”
One official involved in the investigation said that Mr. Brown had asked his chief of homicide to prepare a list of what was needed to move forward, and had passed it on to police. The list contained about 30 items, like autopsy and toxicology reports; 911 and radio transmission tapes; hospital reports for both the civilians and the police officers involved in the shooting; ballistics reports; the criminal histories, if any, of witnesses; and photos or videos taken by civilians or the police. Mr. Brown has said several times that the investigation is in its earliest stages and it remains unclear what the inquiry and testimony before the grand jury will show. But the investigation will focus sharply on what occurred in the minutes leading up to the shooting, and in those frenzied seconds when the officers fired 50 bullets at a car, killing Mr. Bell, the groom, and wounding two friends as they left the Club Kalua, a strip club in Jamaica, nine days ago.
Make no mistake, there is no other story going on in New York. It dominates the newspapers, the radio, in the streets. And regardless of the history, people expect all five cops to be charged with and go to jail for murder in the second degree. Nothing less.
Is that realistic? I don't know. But it is the expectation of black New York, and if that expectation isn't met, protests will explode across the city. Which is why people want it out of the Queens DA's hands. They don't even want to risk the explosion which will come from a refusal to indict.
I honestly believe someone will die if there is no indictment, anger is just that high throughout the city. They could barely control the protestors outside the police station on Saturday.
Why? Because despite the circumstances, black men die at the hands of police in circumstances which would result in jail for anyone else, and nothing happens except a payout. That isn't going to be acceptable this time, because Giuliani used the last cop get out of jail free card. This time, anything less than jail will result in a massive protest.
Because it isn't a temper tantrum, it goes to an issue of fairness and oppression. Blacks are a minority on a police force which has white executives, they are harassed by the police on the slighest pretext, they are disrespected by the police. But when it comes for justice when the police are wrong, clearly wrong, it never comes. It gets to the heart of the society when the police are always protected from their crimes against black citizens. There is a limit to how tolerable that is in 2006.
posted by Steve @ 1:32:00 AM