2008-03-07 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

The Sean Bell Case Revisited: Sixteen Months Later
Commentary By Howard Schwach

When Sean Bell was shot and killed by undercover police officers on November 25, 2006, the city immediately split along racial and socio-economic lines.

Many in the minority community viewed the shooting as another police assassination of a black man, who was doing nothing wrong.

Most of the white community viewed the shooting as a tragic police accident, an outgrowth of the fact that, in more than 85 percent of the crimes reported to police in New York City, the perpetrator is described as black or Hispanic, and that the cops overreacted to a perceived threat.

For the sake of full disclosure, I have to say that I fell into the latter group because my son is a police lieutenant and because I have been around the block more times that I care to count over the past 38 years that I have been writing professionally.

I am among the group that did not believe that the three cops who now stand before the dock in Queens Supreme Court could get a fair jury trial in Queens. Witness the first day of the trial, when picketers stood in front of the courthouse, chanting "50 Shots" and "Murderers." Think of jury members walking through that phalanx and what impact that exhibition would have had on their thinking.

On the other hand, I trust Judge Arthur Cooperman to do the right thing in what has now become a bench trial. He alone will decide, based on the facts and not on protestors or media coverage, what happened that night.

I wrote a column after the shooting in which I presented my thoughts and beliefs about the shooting. They haven't changed much over the past 16 months, despite Al Sharpton's exultations and the commercialization of Bell's fiancée.

It's just about what you would expect from Sharpton, given the Tawana Brawley case, the Rockaway Five, the Harlem riots, etc.

Let's take a dispassionate look at the facts.

Club Kalua was under constant observation by the NYPD's Club Enforcement Initiative. It was a home for lowpriced hookers and lap dancers, drugs and guns. Some of the working girls who use the club as their base are reportedly as young as 13. Cops had been called to the club more than two dozen times, an average of about twice a month during the year.

Four arrests were made inside the club, mostly for prostitution, but at least one for illegal guns and another for drugs.

In addition, numerous gun and drug arrests were made right outside the Jamaica club.

That is where Bell chose to have his bachelor party. His father was so embarrassed by the choice, he testified, that he tried to opt out of the evening.

Bell was used to places like Club Kalua. It was his milieu. Make no mistake about it, despite the press constantly talking about his fiancée, his two kids and his budding baseball stardom, Bell was what most of us would call a bad actor.

He got picked up by the police in 2003 and again in 2004 on charges involving drugs and weapons possession.

In April of 2006, he got busted again for selling coke. He got two weeks of community service in August, but an undercover cop allegedly bought coke from him the same month and he was arrested again.

In early August, he got picked up for possession of marijuana.

In each case, he got released on his own recognizance, a fault in our justice system that goes on and on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times each week.

So, there he was on November 25, a bad actor in a bad place that had attracted a special NYPD unit that wanted to make sure no more young women got drugged and raped at city clubs.

Two undercovers were in the strip club, the others outside as backup. The undercovers were drinking. Anybody sitting in the bar without a drink would immediately be made as a cop and any chance of making a prostitution or drug arrest would be gone.

The NYPD has a two-drink rule for undercover cops. Sip them slowly, don't get drunk.

Only two drinks.

Sharpton and other activists make much of the fact that two of the detectives had been drinking, but that's part of the job, part of the image that gives them entrée to then police a possibly deadly situation from the inside.

Judge Cooperman will understand that fact, even if Sharpton and his minions do not.

About 3 a.m., one of the detectives saw a man with a Chicago White Sox jersey go up to one of the hookers who had been arguing with a group at the strip club.

It is not clear whether it was Bell's party or another, but the fact is that the man said to the stripper, "I got you covered with them," and he tapped his waistband as if there was something there.

"Gun," one of the undercovers said to himself.

That stripper was the one who eventually testified that she never heard anybody identify himself as a cop prior to the shooting.

Believable witness? Cooperman will have to decide.

At about 4 a.m., the detective followed Bell and his party out of the club, convinced that there was a gun present somewhere in the party. A tall man standing on the street started yelling insults at Bell and his friends.

The detective told investigators that somebody in Bell's party yelled, "Let's Fk him up."

Next, the detective testified, he heard Joseph Guzman, who was later shot, yell either "Yo, get my gun," or, "Yo, get my gat."

The detective continued to follow Bell's group to their car, parked a short way from the club.

He got out his cell phone and called the lieutenant in charge of the nineman detail.

"Getting hot on Liverpool," he said, referring to the street they were on. "I think there's a gun." The lieutenant gave the order to move, to stop and frisk Bell and his party.

Cops pulled their van into Liverpool Street, blocking off Bell's egress. The detective who called in the gun pulled his Glock and walked towards the car.

Bell, drunk and driving, pulled away from the curb and struck the van. He then backed up towards the three detectives on foot coming at him from the rear.

One of the detectives testified that he thought the front seat passenger was reaching to his waistband for a gun. He fired. Somebody yelled "gun," and most of the other undercover cops began firing as well.

Fifty shots were fired. Bell was killed and two of his friends were wounded.

That is what will come out in the trial.

I believe it. I believe that it was a tragic accident.

It does not matter, however, what I believe. Or, what Al Sharpton believes.

It only matters what Judge Arthur Cooperman believes and what will happen in this city if the three are found not guilty.

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