This morning NYPD officers Isnora, Cooper and Oliver were acquitted of a battery of charges related to the death of Sean Bell.
The detectives stated that the shooting was the regrettable conclusion of a long chain of events, but that the actions they took outside the Queens nightclub were nonetheless justified. The prosecution argued that they acted irrationally – though their original intent on that night in November 2006 was to conduct vice-related arrests, the quickly found themselves in a situation far beyond their ability to control.
No verdict would satisfy everyone in New York.
I cannot pass judgement on what happened. To do so, I would have to have been there on the night in question, aware of what was about to transpire, to have heard what the detectives heard and seen what transpired afterwards. I was not, and will not question the operational decisions of the officers on the ground.
I can, however, comment on what I do know. Fifty rounds fired at a target that does not pose an immediate threat, is retreating and is more than a handful of feet away is not an appropriate or professional use of force for officers equipped with pistols. The officers believe they were acting to prevent a possible gang-related shooting, certainly a push-button topic for the urban community, but they were not equipped to do so, given the dangerous risks involved in engaging the target far outweighed the potential return. The detective were in no clear danger and had identified no clear threat, yet were nonetheless compelled to fire off dozens of rounds.
Two issues arise. When fifty rounds are fired by a group of officers at a target and only three of those rounds make contact, there are policy and training issues with use of force. The officers made an operational decision about a threat and a subsequent about engaging the target – a fleeting car that posed no immediate danger. Fifty rounds were fired, with three hits.
What is the NYPD’s policy governing the use of weapons? Is that policy mirrored in the training? Unfortunately, I suspect that there is a significant disconnect between policy and training, and one that exists regardless of the NYPD’s official stance on the shootings.
If the NYPD indicates that it does not support the shooting (and the talk of an internal investigation suggests this is the case), then it must accept that there is a lack of coherency across the use of force system. The Department’s policy, the legal opinions, the doctrine, the various capabilities (uniformed officers, detectives, special users such as SWAT-type units), the training and the equipment must all work together in a coordinated and cohesive fashion.
If the NYPD comes down on the other side of the issue, as appears to be the case here, there must be a systematic problem that must be identified and addressed. If there is no systematic problem, then only one, or perhaps two, officers would have fired. That is not the case here.
Understandably the pace of events was fast that evening. One has to wonder, why was there not heavier operational support called, and I assume the answer is time. The threat of a drive-by shooting surely called for a more coherent use of force strategy. If there were concerns that something like this was going to occur, is the prudent course for all concerned, particularly the officers involved, to have quick access to a more heavily armed response capability? I am appreciative of the system in use by most British constabularies, where the officers who do not, except in Northern Ireland, carry personal weapons, and those only for self-defence against the (not completely finished) terrorist threat. For these constabularies police response is the uniformed officers, supported by area cars with officers trained and equipped more extensively with lethal weapons, supported in turn by the equivalent of SWAT organisations for more serious operations.
Sometimes the physical nature of heavier weapons, of the clear threat of force, is sufficient to de-escalate a situation, creating shock of capture in the minds of suspects. One suspects that being confronted head-on by a number of officers with badges and pistols, or ideally marked officers with rifles, would have prevented such a tragic situation. For whatever reason, and be in no doubt that reason will be a good one, that did not happen.
Hopefully this regrettable situation will lead to a review of the Use of Force system within NYPD; not to criticize, but to identify problems that the incident highlighted, and resolve them. The resolution of errors is the calling of the true professional, and NYPD is proud of its professionalism.