N.Y. Mayor Calls Shooting 'Inexplicable'

Black leaders including Al Sharpton, center, join New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, left, at a news conference addressing the shootings.
Black leaders including Al Sharpton, center, join New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, left, at a news conference addressing the shootings. (By Stephen Chernin -- Getty Images)
By Michael Powell and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

NEW YORK, Nov. 27 -- Once again a hail of police bullets has ended the life of an unarmed black New Yorker, and the city's mayor finds himself walking an uncertain line between reassuring black and Latino residents and defending his police force.

With a City Council member saying that black people are being "murdered" and some black clergy signaling their discontent with Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R), who is white, walked into a news conference Monday and spoke of his profound unease with the shooting by undercover police that claimed the life of a bridegroom on his wedding day.

"I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50 shots fired," Bloomberg said. "It sounds to me that excessive force was used, but that's up to the district attorney to find out."

In a visible symbol of Bloomberg's concern, he was accompanied by a number of prominent black pastors and politicians, including activist preacher Al Sharpton and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.). The night before, Sharpton journeyed to the Community Church of Christ in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens and vowed that he was going to "keep this in the street."

The shooting occurred early Sunday morning as an undercover officer trailed three men -- Sean Bell, 23, Joseph Guzman, 31, and Trent Benefield, 23 -- as they left a bachelor party at the Kalua Cabaret club in Jamaica. The trio had argued with two men inside the club and left, trying to avoid trouble, witnesses said.

The officer told the three men to stop, although witnesses differ about whether the officer identified himself and flashed his badge.

Bell and his friends, witnesses told the New York Daily News, feared that the undercover officer was a friend of those they had argued with and that he was carrying a gun. The men tried to pull away in their car, scraping the leg of an officer. An officer fired a shot, and four more officers pulled out their 9mm guns and began shooting.

Three bullets fatally struck Bell, a delivery man and father of two, who died just hours before his marriage ceremony was to take place.

Benefield and Guzman were injured; the latter had 11 bullet wounds. None of the three men carried a gun, and police manacled the two survivors as they lay bleeding, a fact that concerned civil libertarians.

"It's not as if people so seriously wounded were a flight risk," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Yet they were treated as criminals for having gotten shot by the police."

Kelly offered a carefully calibrated defense, noting that the Hispanic officer who opened fire was a 12-year veteran and apparently thought the car was trying to hit him. Three of the five officers who fired shots were black or Latino.

Kelly's spokesmen released data showing that New York officers now fire 40 percent fewer shots per incident than in 1995. Police killed 30 people in 1996, compared with nine in 2005 and 10 so far this year.

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