Mayor Says Shooting Was ‘Excessive’

 

November 27, 2006    
James Estrin/The New York Times

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg with the Rev. Al Sharpton Monday.

November 27, 2006
 

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg convened an extraordinary summit meeting of black religious leaders and elected officials at City Hall today to calm frayed tempers over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in Queens, a killing he called "inexplicable" and "unacceptable."

"It sounds to me like excessive force was used," the mayor said of the conduct of the officers, who fired 50 shots outside a Queens nightclub early Saturday, killing Sean Bell, 23, hours before he was to be wed and injuring two others. "I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired."

Mr. Bloomberg made the remarks after meeting with some of the city’s most influential black politicians and community leaders, including Representative Charles B. Rangel, the Rev. Al Sharpton and dozens of others. The mayor’s decision to meet with Mr. Sharpton and other black leaders was a stark turnabout from the days of Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did not reach out to black leaders in the immediate aftermath of the fatal 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who died in a hail of 41 police bullets.

Mayor Bloomberg’s blunt assessment of events still under investigation was striking, although he took pains to point out that the facts were not all in, saying several times that he did not yet know what happened in the shooting, which is being reviewed by the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown.

In a surprise development, a lawyer representing the officers said they would testify before the grand jury looking into the shooting. The lawyer, Philip E. Karasyk, who works for the Detectives Endowment Association, said, "We feel confident that once all of the facts and circumstance of this tragic incident are known, then our detectives will be exonerated."

"This was a tragedy, but not a crime," he said.

Participants at the private meeting at City Hall, which included Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and several high-ranking Bloomberg aides, described the discussions as frequently heated, with the mayor sitting next to leaders who he counts as supporters. Those more critical of the administration’s response to the shooting, including Mr. Sharpton and City Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, sat on the opposite side of the table.

Mr. Bloomberg’s approach of reaching out to community leaders has drawn praise, but it has left some unconvinced that the underlying conflicts between the police and predominantly black communities are being addressed.

"We prefer talking than not talking, but the object is not a conversation, the object is fairness and justice," Mr. Sharpton said as he left City Hall. "Because we’re not just interested in being treated politely, we’re interested in being treated fairly and rightly. And that will happen when police are held as accountable as anyone else."

Mr. Bloomberg pledged to do just that, saying that the city would review its policies and training procedures to insure fair treatment, but he added that he did not believe the shooting was racially motivated.

Some policies appear to have been violated in the shooting, which occurred when undercover officers fired 50 bullets at Mr. Bell’s car after he drove into one of the officers and an unmarked police van.

Officers are trained to shoot no more than three bullets before pausing to reassess the situation, Mr. Kelly said in his most detailed assessment of the shooting yet. Department policy also largely prohibits officers from firing at vehicles, even when they are being used as weapons.

Although several of the leaders at City Hall expressed confidence in the mayor and police commissioner, the emotional summit meeting, which began with outbursts of anger and ended calmly, laid bare some of the rifts among New York’s black leaders themselves, with some expressing support for the mayor’s handling of the incident or refraining from criticizing him. Many, however, expressed concerns that the administration was failing to deal with what they described as continuing tensions between black residents and police officers even when the officers are nonwhite.

"There were some heated exchanges," said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, an influential Pentecostal minister in Brooklyn. "We all agree that there is a pattern of police abuse of power, and this abuse of power ranges from police killing to police brutal behavior to disrespect. We reiterated that over and over again."

Reverend Daughtry warned the mayor not to confuse patience with complacency. "There is a temperature in our communities that is rising, and the tension is intensifying," he said. "While we don’t want to try to ignite anything, we’d be blind to overlook what’s happening and not to sound the alarm."

But other leaders played down the anger in the room, saying that some participants seemed determined to bring up past history or to pursue agendas with little bearing on this specific incident.

"There’s always anger after incidents like this and there’s always a lot of people that bring up other incidents," said City Councilman Leroy G. Comrie of Queens. "People confuse history and specific people are concerned about their individual actions."

He added, "You have different people that don’t know each other, there’s always room dynamics, you know, because people come in with different agendas or some people are off topic altogether."

The shooting happened as the police were undercover in the club, called Club Kalua, to investigate reports of prostitution and drug dealing. One undercover officer then followed a group of men outside, thinking one of them may have been armed or was going to get a gun.

Some of the leaders expressed dismay over Mr. Kelly’s disclosure that one of the undercover officers had two beers in the course of the operation inside the nightclub but was not given a breathalyzer test. Mr. Kelly said undercover officers in the field are allowed the two drinks and are not normally tested for intoxication but are instead judged fit or unfit for duty by their supervisors.

Saying that there was a "grave crisis" of confidence in his southeast Queens community, Bishop Lester Williams, the minister who was to have performed Mr. Bell’s wedding, asserted that there had been no improvement in police-community relations since the height of tensions during the Giuliani administration.

"It’s little Iraq, I’m sorry, especially toward the blacks in the community," he said before attending the meeting. "We don’t feel protected."

But others said that Mr. Bloomberg had made some progress simply by setting a new tone.

"Just the simple fact of meeting, or discussion, or expressing concern and outrage on the part of this administration, was different," said Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., the city’s top black elected official.

But while officials hashed over past shootings and police procedure in the ornate rooms of City Hall, Mr. Bell’s father, William, 53, stood by his house on a quiet, suburban street near Cambria Heights and said that they were all missing something.

"It’s more about politics than human life," he said, adding that while he appreciated the support of public figures like Mr. Sharpton, he wanted some acknowledgment of his private grief. Mr. Bloomberg has spoken with Sean Bell’s fiancé and said he plans to visit the neighborhood and family soon, but William Bell said none of the officials had reached out to him.

"At least they could say I’m sorry," he said. "Say I’m sorry, I’m going to find out what’s going on."

"He’s gone," he said of his son. Then, patting over his chest he added: "Not here in my heart he’s not gone, but he’s gone."

Reporting was contributed by William K. Rashbaum, Daryl Kahn and Michelle O’Donnell.

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