The Sean Bell trial is over. The trial judge, Arthur F. Cooperman, acting as both judge and jury, issued his verdict of "not guilty" to three police officers.
Those officers — two black and one white — had been charged in the killing of Sean Bell, a young black man celebrating his forthcoming marriage. According to the judge, the three undercover officers who fired 50 shots at Bell's car committed no criminal act. The judge noted in his verdict that "questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums."
Sean Bell was killed on Nov. 25, 2006 after he and two companions left a night club in which the three had been partying and got into Bell's car. The three undercover officers believed that one of the passengers was reaching for a gun. The public was told at a press conference attended by Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Mike Bloomberg that the police had fired 50 shots, described by Mayor Bloomberg, as I recall, as excessive.
Commissioner Kelly emphasized that police regulations state that a police officer firing a gun is required to stop after three shots to determine whether more were needed.
Since no gun was found in the car and none of the three occupants had fired a gun, I believe the public expected that the three officers would be tried and found guilty. When that did not happen, there was an immediate fear that community anger would lead to some kind of violence, which, to the credit of everyone involved, did not occur.
The media, including the foreign press, were calling everyone to get curbstone opinions on the outcome of the case. I was called by the BBC. My response included some of the following comments. I referred to the judge as someone who was held in high regard by those familiar with his career and someone who had had a case involving minority victims and alleged police officers as aggressors, and had found police officers criminally responsible for their actions.
Further, the judge was not exonerating the officers and their conduct in the Bell case. He simply concluded that their conduct which might have been careless and incompetent, was not criminal.
The criminal aspect having been disposed of, there remains the possibility of several other law enforcement actions. The family can bring a civil suit for the loss of Sean Bell's life and the passengers for injuries. The U.S. attorney has the right to commence a civil rights lawsuit, and the police department may commence a department hearing on the issues involving carelessness and incompetence which could result in a termination from the force of any or all of those involved in the undercover operation which resulted in Bell's death.
That the feared violence did not follow the judge's verdict is not only a credit to the supporters of justice for the Bell family, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, but should not be a total surprise. Civil rights activists have matured, as have communities over the last decade, and race relations in New York City are far better than they have ever been, nationally and locally, especially in New York City.
Sharpton’s comments, reported by The New York Times on April 28, convey his intention and frame of reference. The Times reported, “At a news conference at the Harlem headquarters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Mr. Sharpton and other activists, politicians and community leaders praised the overall peaceful response that followed the verdict, and vowed to fight the judge’s decision in strategic rather than bellicose ways. ‘Some in the media seemed disappointed, they wanted us to play into the hoodlum thug stereotypes,’ Mr. Sharpton said. ‘We can be angry without being mad.’”
The non-violent response to the verdict is, I believe, due in part to Mayor Bloomberg and his overall approach to racial incidents which has been to visit the victims of violence, comfort families and offer help, and to be available to community leaders seeking redress.
Today, given the opportunity to be heard, communities — black and white — are not seeking confrontation and destruction of property, but rather, redress to legitimate grievances. The once existing desire of some to tear down as the result of frustration and lack of power has given way to the goal of achieving justice through the use of the courts and whenever possible, through dialogue.
It is a miraculous change for some, but I believe mostly attributable to a climate of power sharing which exists in large measure in much of the U.S. We recognize that we are a nation of minorities.
In New York City, we have no majority sector any longer and we simply have to live together, recognizing that our future is a common one that will benefit all of us or none of us.
For me, there was one discordant note amid the unifying ones. Most New Yorkers, black and white, understand the danger that police officers sometimes find themselves in and can understand that a police officer reasonably believing himself or others to be in danger, may resort to lethal force to protect his and the lives of others. Sometimes an innocent life, e.g., Sean Bell's, will be taken and a huge tragedy caused which we should all mourn.
In this case, after the verdict dismissing all charges against the officers, only one, Detective Marc Cooper, expressed sorrow to the Bell family for their loss. It is not too late for the other two, Detectives Gescard F. Isnora and Michael Oliver, if they mean it, to do the same while thanking God for their own fortunate outcomes.
So far, we have responded to a city tragedy without the kind of anger that can only harm us all. Let's keep it that way.
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