Friday, December 08, 2006


50 bullets in his hat...

In case you've been too wrapped up in the coup d'état in Fiji to follow the story of the Sean Bell shooting in Queens, NY, here's the synopsis: Sean Bell would have been married on 25 November. He died, instead, around 4:00 that morning, behind 50 police bullets, some of which injured his friends Joseph Guzmán and Trent Benefield. In question is whether the officers had reason to think the men were armed or otherwise posed sufficient danger to warrant the shooting — and there's conflicting information about that.

There's also the race issue, which has been raised by many, including the usual suspects. I don't believe there is endemic racism in the New York City police department, and I don't believe that NYPD officers like going around shooting black people. The five officers involved in the shooting were of mixed races, though that doesn't mean anything in itself.

But I don't want to talk, here, about whether the officers were justified in shooting or whether race was a factor, so let's set those aside. Let's assume, here, that the officers had reason to believe that they needed to shoot — even kill — all three men in order to control the situation and protect themselves and others. What I want to talk about is how the shooting went, once it started.

First, some facts, which we can get from this NY Times graphic (I don't know how long the link will be good), particularly panels 8 and 9:

  1. Five officers did the shooting; they were not all together. Two pairs were outside one vehicle, two were in another, and a fifth, the first to shoot, had been on foot.
  2. 50 shots were fired in total. The officer on foot fired 11 of them, and one of the other officers accounted for 31 others — he reloaded his gun during the incident. The other three officers, therefore, fired 8 shots among them, roughly three each.
  3. 21 of the 50 shots hit the victims' car.[1]
  4. Mr Bell was hit twice, Mr Benefield three times, and Mr Guzmán 11 times.
  5. That leaves at least 13 shots (or more if some are counted twice above, as hitting both the car and a person) that went somewhere else. The NY Times notes that shots also hit "a nearby house, cars, and an AirTrain platform window."
  6. We can see from the photo of the scene in panels 8 and 9 that all of this happened in close proximity. No one was very far from anyone else while the shooting was going on.

My first question is why it would ever be necessary to fire 50 shots to stop three people. I wondered the same sort of thing about the Amadou Diallo shooting, nearly eight years ago, when police fired 41 shots at a single unarmed man who was standing in his doorway (though again, it doesn't matter whether any of these people were armed or not; it only matters whether the officers reasonably thought they were armed). Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki both said, right after the incident, that 50 shots seemed "excessive" to them. It seems excessive to me too.

Next, while I understand that officers want to take immediate control of any situation and not give people a chance to shoot back, it still seems sensible — and it's my understanding that it's department policy and part of their training — that they should shoot just two or three shots and then stop and assess the situation before, say, emptying two clips. (It's possible that something of that nature did happen, since there are some witness reports that the gunfire came in two bursts.) I can't imagine that unarmed men who had been injured by the first few rounds would still be perceived as threats by the officers. Yes, it was dark and they were inside a car. Still.

The pattern of what was hit — 21 bullets hitting the car itself, and one of the three being hit 11 times — makes it seem to me that the officers were shooting rather wildly. Far from aiming at anything (which, indeed, might have been impossible given the darkness and the car), they seemed to just be spraying bullets in the right general direction.

In particular, with bullets hitting nearby houses and cars, it seems that the shooting posed a significant — perhaps an unnecessarily significant — danger to other people in the area (there were witnesses, and I presume there were people who'd been asleep in the houses and who might have been struck). These are trained and experienced officers. They're taught to shoot, and they practice it. I might not be able to hit a car with every shot from what looks to be no more than ten meters away... but I'd expect trained police officers to be able to do it, and not to have their bullets zinging off into the neighbourhood. (Some of those shots might have been ricochets, but remember that there were at least 13 shots that hit neither the car nor any of the people.)

I do not understand how these things happen. I have no idea what it's like to be a police officer, and how one perceives things out on the street in the midst of a potentially deadly incident. I don't know how threatened they feel, and what goes through their minds when they fire their guns.

It just seems that it happens with far too little control, and that's the part that worries me about it.

[1] I thought about how to say this and decided to use "victims". I don't mean to directly accuse the police, it's just that "suspects" didn't seem right, since it's not clear what, if anything, they were "suspected" of. Just consider it a word, and don't read anything else into it.

Update, 16 March 2007: A grand jury just indicted three of the officers.

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