There are more questions than answers today as the police investigate an encounter three men had with the police in Queens early Saturday morning. The police ended up shooting at the men’s car, killing a man on the day of his wedding and wounding his two friends. The men were not armed.
The three men, Sean Bell, Joseph Guzman, and Trent Benefield, had just left the Kalua Lounge, a strip club, for Bell’s bachelor party. According to police sources, some undercover police officers were at the club to make prostitution arrests. The Daily News reports that one of the officers overheard “a bouncer suggest to a dancer that he had a gun, and the cops went outside to warn plainclothes officers in a nearby van.”
An hour later, a fight erupted outside the club. Bell, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield were allegedly among eight men yelling at another man, Kelly said.
One of the undercover cops heard Bell shout, “Let’s f— him up,” and Guzman say, “Yo – go get my gun,” Kelly said.
“It’s getting hot on Liverpool, for real. I think there’s a gun,” an undercover warned his lieutenant, Kelly said.
Then, Bell, Guzman and Benefield left. Here is the NY Times’ account:
Witnesses told of chaos, screams and a barrage of gunfire near Club Kalua at 143-08 94th Avenue in Jamaica about 4:15 a.m. after Mr. Bell and his friends walked out and got into their car. Mr. Bell drove the car half a block, turned a corner and struck a black unmarked police minivan bearing several plainclothes officers.
Mr. Bell’s car then backed up onto a sidewalk, hit a storefront’s rolled-down protective gate and nearly struck an undercover officer before shooting forward and slamming into the police van again, the police said.
In response, five police officers fired at least 50 rounds at the men’s car, a silver Nissan Altima; the bullets ripped into other cars and slammed through an apartment window near the shooting scene on Liverpool Street near 94th Avenue.
Bell was shot in the neck and arm and died from his wounds. Guzman had 11 gunshot wounds and is critical condition while Benefield was shot 3 times and is in stable condition.
Kelly said the undercover officer who fired the first round identified himself as a police officer. However, Benefield says the cops did not identify themselves. Additionally, the police officers had anywhere from 5 to 17 years experience, according to Kelly. The police officer who fired 31 times had 12 years of experience.
While Commissioner Kelly said that the investigation was ongoing, some detectives aired their opinions.
One detective on the scene shook his head as he told The Post that the shooting was “a major screw-up.”
Another cop later said, “It could be like the guy with the wallet” – referring to unarmed Bronx man Amadou Diallo, who in 1999 was hit by 19 of 41 bullets fired by cops as he grabbed for his wallet.
Bell’s mother angrily said, “[The police are] covering up, because they know the police did wrong. You know how society works. They label all African-American men the same. They should have pulled out a badge before they started shooting.” Kelly emphasized that the five police officers involved were of different races: Two white officers, two black, one Hispanic.
The police officers who fired shots were not interviewed, because apparently once they are questioned (according to the Times, interrogating police officers can be tricky and many prosecutors do not interrogate them “even if criminal conduct is suspected,” lest they end up granting them immunity and jeopardizing the prosecution’s case). Newsday reports that the accounts of the police officers who did not fire their guns conflicted, leaving one detective as saying, “It’s confusing as hell.”
Police officers were also criticized for handcuffing Guzman and Benefield to their hospital beds for much of the day. While the police say they were uncuffed when it was realized they had been unarmed, their relatives say they were only uncuffed after “press inquiries.”
Bell was supposed to marry his high school sweetheart, Nicole Paultrie, today at 5PM at the La Bella Vita hall in Ozone Park. The 23 year old Bell and 22 year old Paultrie had two daughters together and lived in the Rockaways. Paultrie’s mother said, “My daughter will never be the same. This was supposed to be their wedding day.”
The Reverend Al Sharpton was joined by family members of the victims outside the hospital yesterday, demanding the truth. Queens DA Richard Brown said, “[There] will be a full, fair and complete investigation of this incident….I would urge everyone to withhold judgment as well until all the facts are known.”
Here’s a link to Police Commissioner Kelly’s statement (it’s a document, via the Times). WABC 7 looks at what justifies police firing their weapons. There have been a few cases recently where the police have opened fire on drivers who have backed their cars into officers, but this seems much more extreme, given the volume of bullets fired.
Photograph of police investigating the shooting yesterday by Adam Rountree/AP; the shooting made the front covers of the Daily News and Post and the front page of the NY Times (below the fold)