2007-03-30 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

The Saga Of The Sean Bell Shooting Continues With The Indictments Of Three Police Officers. What Do City Residents Think About It All?
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Commentary By Howard Schwach

The criminal indictments against three police officers who took part in the shooting of Sean Bell in Jamaica are not the end of the controversy, but the beginning of a long legal process that will probably take a year or more and might well wind up in the courts of Albany or Schenectady.

As with everything that happens in this city, there are those who think that the indictments did not go far enough in punishing the five cops who were present during those early morning hours and there are those who think that the cops did nothing criminal and should not have been indicted at all.

Where do I stand on that continuum?

I'm still not sure.

I do "know" that the cops did not set out to kill anybody that night, as some charge.

I do "know" that the tragic shootings were not the racist plot that Al Sharpton and others think it was.

For the black leadership to say that the three minority cops involved in the shooting have to be more racist than the white cops to remain on the job and that all of the cops were out hunting black people that night is blatantly ridiculous.

Having a son on the job, I do believe the police mantra that "It is better to be tried by twelve than carried by six." When I say "safe home" and "have a good tour" to my son as he departs for work, I am never sure what that day will bring him, even though he is no longer on patrol. It is a dangerous job and one that is critical for keeping the residents of New York City safe from harm. I have seen enough in my years in the public schools and as a member of the Bayswater Civilian Patrol to know that there are bad guys out there and that the cops never know what they are going to face until they face it. Then, they have a split second to make a life or death decision as to what action to take. That is never easy and sometimes, the cops get it wrong.

Does that rise to criminality? Personally, I don't think so and I don't think that a jury will think so either.

You never know, however.

There is little doubt that city residents are split over the Sean Bell shooting and its aftermath.

A recent New York Daily News poll is really instructive.

The poll, conducted shortly after the indictments were unsealed by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, found that a plurality of 41 percent believe that the manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges handed up by the grand jury for the November 25, 2006 shootings were appropriate.

But black and Latino respondents were far more likely to suggest that the charges were insufficient to the crime.

The question was, "Out of the five officers involved in the shooting of Sean Bell, two were indicted on charges including manslaughter and one other was indicted for reckless endangerment. Do you feel these charges are: "too much," "too little," "about right," or "not sure." The racial breakdown went something like this:

It is clear that many white people are as ambivalent about the indictments as I am. The majority, according to the Daily News poll, however, believe that the indictments were just about right or perhaps a little too much.

Blacks, on the other hand, look at the indictments equally as either too little or about right. Far fewer blacks are unsure on the question of indictments.

Latino respondents are in the middle of the other two.

I guess that's about what you would expect from a New York City poll. More whites support the police even though they are not sure that the cops were strictly following procedure in this particular case. Many blacks, perhaps the majority, look at the police with suspicion. What you did not get in this poll was a majority of whites who say that the police were absolutely right or a majority of blacks saying that they were absolutely wrong.

In fact, another question in the poll asked, "In general, do you approve or disapprove of the job the New York City Police Department is doing?

The findings were a little surprising, at least to me. Overall, 66 percent approve of the way the NYPD does its job, 23 percent disapprove and 11 percent are not sure. The racial breakdown, however, is more revealing.

The great majority of white respondent support the police and what they do in this city. The black population is evenly split between approval and disapproval, which is something that I have been saying all along. The black Rockaway residents have a vested interest in an aggressive police department. Without that department, as they are well aware, the housing projects in Rockaway would become unlivable because they would be taken over by the drug gangs that already impact them. There was one other question in the survey that struck me as being important in the wake of the shooting and the controversy that surrounds it. That question was, "In general, do you feel that race relations in New York City Today are: "Excellent," ""Good," "Not Good," "Poor," or "Not Sure."

On the average, 44% said that they are good and 15 percent said they are poor. Those are not overwhelmingly negative numbers.

The responses in the ethnic breakdown were enlightening, however. The number of respondents who said they were "Not Sure" was insignificant in each case, less than 2 percent.

Do we have a problem in New York City that has been exacerbated by the Sean Bell shooting? Of course we do. Is it as wide as Sharpton and others would have you believe? Not if you believe this poll.

It is time to move on and to allow the justice system to do its thing. I wonder, however, what will happen should a jury find the three police defendants not guilty of all charges?

We will have to wait and see.

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