Guns Gone Wild
NYPD gunfire goes up while crime goes down. What gives?
by Sean Gardiner
December 5th, 2006 12:24 PM
In the pre-dawn hours of November 25, outside the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica, Queens, Detective Mike Oliver squeezed the trigger of his police-issue 9mm pistol in the line of duty for the first time in his 12 years on the force. He squeezed again and again and again until he had fired all 16 shots in the weapon. Then he pushed the extractor button with his thumb, popping out the empty clip, and with his left hand he slapped a 15-round clip up through the hollow handle. He fired and fired until the gun was emptied again�31 shots in 10 to 15 seconds, tops. And he wasn't the only cop firing.
When a supervisor later asked Oliver about the shooting, Oliver was unsure whether he had fired any shots at all, a high-ranking police source tells the Voice. Even making allowances for the extreme adrenaline rush, fear, and confusion that reign at any shooting, police investigators looked askance at Oliver when he said that. Any cop can understand not recalling firing one or two bullets, but two full clips? In the end, the investigators didn't push it, chalking up Oliver's curious statement to shock, the police source said. They jotted down what he said and included his statement in a preliminary report that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown says "raises as many questions as it answers."
The harsh reality: In 2005, New York City police officers fired 616 bullets, about 30 percent more than the 477 annual average from 1999 to 2004. In just one incident last year, police fired 77 shots before winging a gunman who was returning fire outside the Taft Houses in East Harlem. Including the Bell incident, NYPD cops have fired 483 shots this year, putting them on pace for fewer than last year but still about 12 percent more than the 477 average.
But here's the oddest number of all: In New York City between 1999 and 2005, major crime has plummeted by some 60,000 complaints, about 48 percent. Also, the number of police-involved shooting incidents has actually been lower, by about eight per year, during that time period.
In other words, police have been getting into fewer shootouts but firing more once it's on.
And forget about the gang that couldn't shoot straight. In 2005 NYPD cops were less accurate than the bad guys shooting back at them, according to a confidential report obtained by the Voice.
Police officials shrug off the increase in shots fired as an aberration; they maintain that the NYPD remains one of the most disciplined and restrained police departments in the country when it comes to gun use. For a comparison, they point to the distant past, like 1972, when NYPD cops fired an astounding 2,510 times, using slower-to-reload six-shot revolvers instead of today's 16-round semiautomatics.
The deadly shooting outside the Kalua Cabaret and all of its resulting furor find their roots in a summer's-night fling by a couple of well-off New Jersey teens getting drunk in a club in Chelsea.
Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, calls such initiatives "overpolicing." "What are these cops doing in a strip bar in Jamaica at four in the morning listening to trash talk?" O'Donnell says. "You've got alcohol and drugs being used and then you have cops bringing firearms and deadly force into the picture. So you have trouble. . . . We've got to stop overpolicing everything."
Browne says the Kalua Cabaret, at 143-08 94th Avenue, was well worth police attention because of a "chronic history of narcotics, prostitution, and weapons complaints there." The strip joint had been closed in July 2005 for prostitution and underage drinking. Since it reopened in October 2005, police have been called to the club 26 times for 911 emergencies and have made eight arrests for prostitution, drugs, or weapons. The most recent arrests, for drugs and prostitution, came only four days before the Bell shooting. One more documented violation and the club would face another city-forced closure.
Around 12:40 a.m. on November 26, two undercover officers, whose names police have not released, entered Kalua. They left their guns and badges in their car outside because bouncers frisked all entering patrons and they didn't want their cover blown.
The officers milled about the club, nursing two beers each while trying to get in on drug or prostitution deals, according to NYPD officials. Later, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said two beers is permissible under NYPD policy. Such moderate drinking allows undercovers to blend in. Although officials didn't administer Breathalyzers, a supervisor on the scene determined that the officers were fit for duty, Kelly said. A retired detective who did undercover work and who spoke to the Voice on the condition of anonymity says blending in often means drinking more than the two drinks allowed.
Around 3 a.m., one of the undercovers, who had recently been transferred to the Club Enforcement unit after saying he was tired of making undercover drug buys in Brooklyn, saw a man he thought was a bouncer approach one of the club's dancers. She had apparently been arguing with some customers earlier that night. The bouncer patted his waistband and told the dancer not to worry, because he had her back. The undercover took it as a sign that the man had a gun. The officer left the club; called his lieutenant, Jerry Napoli, on his cell phone; and told him there may be trouble. The undercover remained outside, and as the club closed, the man he suspected of having the gun left, according to police sources.
Around 4 a.m., Sean Bell, Joseph Guzman, and Trent Benefield filed out of the club with other patrons. The undercover watched as Bell, his friends, and about five others argued with and, according to police spokesman Paul Browne, threatened a man who was standing by a black SUV in front of the club.
A witness later told police that he heard Bell say, "Let's fuck him up." According to police officials, the undercover heard Guzman chime in, "Yo, get my gun, get my gun." The men then split into two groups, with Bell's group heading east on 94th Avenue before walking onto Liverpool Avenue, where Bell's Nissan Altima was parked.
As he trailed Bell, the undercover called his lieutenant again, according to officials, and told him, "It's getting hot" and "I think there's a gun." The lieutenant, in an unmarked van, was being followed by another minivan and a Toyota Camry, each occupied by two officers. All the cops were in street clothes.
After Bell and the others climbed into the Altima, the undercover cop who was trailing them crossed the street and confronted them, gun out and his leg up on the car's bumper. At this point, it's not known why he did that. Commissioner Kelly would later admit that the undercover's actions were "unusual" and not the way police ideally map out such takedowns.
Bernard Cole, a former NYPD detective who worked undercover, was more critical of that tactic. "It's Policing 101 when you're in plain clothes," Cole says. None of the men was brandishing a gun, and none of them was menacing anyone, he says, "so the threat wasn't imminent. The cops should've surveilled the guy, called in a radio car, and let the uniforms take care of it." But to call in the uniformed cops, Cole notes, would have meant turning over a gun collar, a cherished arrest for NYPD cops.
What followed next was a chain reaction of mistakes for the plainclothes Club Enforcement cops. Benefield has told police he didn't hear the undercover identify himself as a cop and that he and his two friends thought the man was trying to rob them. As one of the unmarked police vans tried to pin the Altima in its parking space, Bell jerked the car forward, knocking aside the undercover and striking the van. Bell threw the Altima into reverse, driving up on a sidewalk and crashing into the security gate of a nearby store. Then he started forward and again crashed into the van.
"If you're going to run up on someone, what do you think is going to happen?" the victim's father, William Bell Sr., says. "I see you run up with a gun, it's dark, what's your first instinct to do�to get out."
Philip Karasyk, whose law firm represents four of the five policemen in the incident, has contended that the undercover officer had his shield around his neck and yelled, "Police!" as he approached Bell's car. Karasyk has said the detective saw one of the men in the car reaching for his waistband and, assuming he was going for a gun, fired a bullet into the car.
The phrase NYPD officials have been using to describe why five officers would then shoot 49 more bullets into a car without anyone shooting back is "contagious fire": cops shooting because their partners are. It's what happened on the night of February 4, 1999, in the Bronx, when police officers assigned to an anti-gun squad struck Amadou Diallo with 19 of the 41 shots they fired. Later they said they thought that a wallet Diallo was reaching for was a gun. In the shooting a week ago Saturday morning, the detective repeatedly screamed, "He's got a gun," and shot 11 times into Bell's car. One backup officer, Mike Carey, fired three shots. Another detective fired four shots, and a fourth officer added one. At the same time, Oliver, after jumping from the struck van, began his own 31-shot barrage.
The only problem is that cops, in general, aren't very good shots. Just look at the numbers. The NYPD's 2005 Firearms Discharge Report, which analyzes every police-related shooting, shows that police officers were involved in 16 "gunfights," in which people were firing back, and 43 more "shootings vs. subjects," in which no gunfire was returned. A total of 472 bullets were fired in those 59 incidents, but only 53 bullets hit their targets, giving cops an accuracy rating of just over 11 percent. Meanwhile, the statistics show that 17 people fired a total of 72 bullets at police in 2005. They hit the cops 14 times, or 19 percent of the time, the report states.
By all accounts, 2005 was an exceedingly inaccurate shooting year for NYPD shooters. Experts say the usual "accuracy" rate for police officers is about 30 percent. But even that rate means that seven out of 10 bullets cops fire are heading for places other than intended. In the Kalua shooting, two Port Authority cops escaped with only minor injuries when a stray bullet broke a window in the nearby AirTrain station; another bullet went through the window of a home, but no one was hit. As many as nine other shots that didn't hit either the men or the car zipped through the neighborhood that night.
Stray police bullets flying through the crowded streets of the city was the reason Commissioner Ray Kelly gave for never being the biggest fan of semiautomatic firepower for the NYPD.
O'Donnell, the John Jay professor, says he thinks the recent increase in shootings is just an aberration. But Noel Leader, an NYPD sergeant who heads up the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, argues that the current police administration's "overaggressive tone" causes incidents like the Bell shooting. As far as Leader is concerned, it's a stats game. "Commissioner Kelly is one of the worst police commissioners in terms of emphasizing getting numbers," says Leader. " 'Go out there and make arrests; we want numbers even though crime is down.' That aggressive atmosphere goes throughout policing�aggressive summonses, aggressive 250s [random stops], aggressive arrests."
Leader says that during each tour, officers are expected to write two "C-summonses," tickets for minor offenses like being in the park after dark or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. The target of this numbers gathering, says Leader, has been the poorer black and Hispanic neighborhoods. "Would they have done this," he says, "if they stopped a car outside Gramercy Park and there were four white people in the car? I don't think so."
As recently as February 1999, two weeks after Diallo was killed, Kelly (then in the private sector) opined in The New York Times that maybe it was time to dial down the NYPD-issue Glock 9mm handguns, limiting the clips to 10 rounds, as he had done in his first stint as police commissioner. Kelly wrote that "the semi-automatic's capacity, and the potential for overshooting, still concern me."
But in 2006, in his fifth year of his second stint as police commissioner and with rumored mayoral aspirations, Kelly is now married to the Glock and other NYPD- issued 9mm pistols. (Imagine the outcry from the police officers should a cop with a modified 10-shot gun be killed by someone with the standard 15-shot Glock.)
Asked whether Kelly will try to modify the NYPD's 9mm pistols, spokesman Paul Browne says he won't. Browne tells the Voice via e-mail that semiautomatics are now the "national standard" and "with no emergence of chronic overshooting or other problems associated with the 9mm," it will continue to be the NYPD's weapon of choice.
posted by Steve @ 1:02:00 AM