2008-05-16 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

[Hopefully] My Final Sean Bell Case Column
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Many people have strong feelings about the verdict in the Sean Bell shooting case.

If you have read this space before, then you already know that I believe the decision that the three undercover detectives were not guilty of criminal activity was the only one that Judge Arthur Cooperman could have made based on the testimony given by Bell's friends and relatives.

It was clear, at least to me, that the detectives believed that the people in the car had a weapon and were planning to use it, a perception based on the comments of his friends just prior to the tragic incident.

There are some who agree with me and some who do not. It is clear from recent surveys that the perception of guilt or innocence is based largely on the race of the person looking at the incident and the verdict.

Once again, race rears its ugly head.

The latest survey was done by the highly-respected Quinnipiac University, so you can count on its validity.

The headline on the press release announcing the survey says, "60 % Of NYC Voters Disagree With Bell Verdict."

As is often the case, the headline does not tell the whole story.

The survey also reveals:

Just over a third of white voters oppose the verdict (34 percent).

Nearly nine out of ten black voters oppose the verdict (89 percent).

Nearly seven out of ten Hispanic voters oppose the verdict (71 percent).

Fifty-two percent of those polled said that the police officers' actions were "inexcusable."

Three out of ten (30 percent) called the incident "tragic, but understandable."

When asked to rate "police brutality in New York City," two-thirds of those polled, including five out of ten white voters and nine out of ten black voters, say that police brutality is either a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem.

A majority of voters polled, more than five out of ten, said they approve of the job being done by the NYPD, but only 22 percent of black voters felt that way, while 70 percent of white voters approved the actions of the police.

Nearly 60 percent of the poll respondents said race relations in the city are good, and 68 percent agree with Mayor Bloomberg's handling of race relations.

Sixty-one percent of the respondents said police are tougher on black citizens than on white citizens. Seven in ten said that the three detectives involved in the Bell shooting should be disciplined by the police department.

What does this all mean?

"There is a substantial racial divide in New York City on the Sean Bell case and the broader issues of police conduct," the press release from the Quinnipiac pollsters says. "Because of overwhelming margins among black voters, the total balance is against the verdict."

So, once again, if you believe that race plays a minor role in this city, think again.

The peaceful demonstrations led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, in which he and members of the Bell family were arrested, given Desk Appearance Tickets and released, are fine.

All citizens have the right to protest for a redress of grievances, even when they are wrong.

They call for justice. You know the old call, "No justice, no peace," one of Sharpton's oldies by goodies.

In this case, however, justice was done. The three detectives were indicted by a grand jury and went to trial.

Had they not gone to trial, perhaps Sharpton's calls would have been more compelling to the white community.

But, they were tried in a bench trial by one of the most impartial and seasoned judges in Queens - Arthur Cooperman.

They had no legal obligation to leave themselves to the vagaries of a Queens jury. If you read the poll noted above correctly, you can only conclude that they did the right thing. The poll clearly shows that many minority members were ready to vote guilty before the trial even began.

State Senator Malcolm Smith, who is on the cusp of becoming the second most-powerful politician in Albany, thinks that the prosecutor should have the final say in whether or not a defendant has to face a jury. I wonder if he has read the Constitution lately. The law clearly grants the right of a defendant to request a bench trial if he or she believes that there can be no fair trial before a jury.

If Smith wants to take that right away, perhaps we should take away his right to represent us when he next comes up for election.

Clearly, had there been a majority of minority jurors sitting in the box, the detectives may well have been found guilty of criminal activity even though the evidence said they were not.

While Sharpton's antics do not trouble me, those of our elected officials such as Malcolm Smith, Jim Sanders and Greg Meeks do.

We elected them to make and uphold our laws. The requirements of the law were followed to the letter of the law in this case and they still rail at the decision.

You cannot hold your hand on a bible and promise to uphold the law and then protest when you have a personal dislike for the outcome of a trial.

It is ironic that on the same day the poll was released, the NYPD released to the City Council and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) a study of police shootings over the past 11 years.

The study finds that police officers fire their weapons far less often than they did a decade ago and that officers hit their targets roughly 34 percent of the time.

The number of bullets fired by NYPD officers dropped to 540 in 2006 from 1,292 in 1996. In addition, the police fatally shot 13 people in 2006, down from 147 in 1996.

The average number of shots fired in any one incident hovers at 3.5. Quite a difference from the Bell case, where 50 shots were fired by the undercover detectives.

The Bell case was an anomaly, a perfect storm of a tragic accident that was brought on by poor police supervision and the thuggery of the victims.

And, that is enough said about that.

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