by JS O’Brien
Nearly every morning for the past few weeks, I’ve brewed a strong cup of orange pekoe, sat down at my computer, and googled “Sean Bell” to get the latest information from a weeks-long trial. In case you haven’t heard, Bell is a young man who was gunned down on the morning of his wedding day by New York City cops who fired 50 shots at Bell and his two companions, claiming that one of them had a gun. No gun was found.
There is a wealth of information on the case here, including a nifty visual recreation complete with comments. If you prefer a more narrative style, you can find it here. But for those who’d rather not read all that, here’s a capsule of the events.
On the evening of November 24, 2006, Bell, the impending groom, and his companions went to a strip club, the Kalua, next to the train tracks on 94th Avenue near its intersection with 143rd Street in the New York borough of Queens. The Kalua puts the seam in seamy. Both the club and its patrons had been cited numerous times for prostitution, drug dealing, and the like.
What the bachelor party crowd didn’t know was that a special New York City police vice unit consisting of nine officers had targeted the Kalua that night. If the police got one more citation, they could close the Kalua as a public nuisance, and it was important to them to get that citation that night because there was talk that the unit was about to be disbanded.
Around 4 a.m., the Kalua closed and Bell and his friends went out onto the street along with some of the undercover police officers who had been inside the Kalua that night. Testimony varies about what happened next. Most say that Bell got into a verbal argument with a “man in black,” who held his hand in his pocket as though he had a gun. Then it gets really confusing. Some say that Joseph Guzman, one of Bell’s friends, said something to the effect of, “Yo, get my gun” or “Yo, get my gat.” Others claim to have heard nothing of the sort. Guzman testified that he said no such thing, and that bluffing about such a thing to a man who might actually have a gun on his person would not be smart in his neighborhood.
Shortly after the argument, Bell and three friends walked east on 94th and turned right on Liverpool Street where Bell’s car was parked facing north. They were trailed by Detective Gescard Isnora who was followed by two mobile backup units, one a Camry and the other a minivan, both with policemen inside. Police in the vehicles have testified that they feared a drive by shooting, and that they had been notified that there was a gun, somewhere, but had little other information.
Bell climbed into the driver’s seat of his Nissan Altima with two of his friends, Guzman, the man who is reported to have said, “Yo, get my gun,” and Trent Benefield; Guzman in the front seat and Benefield in the back. A fourth friend was nearby, but didn’t get in the car. One backup unit, the one in the Toyota Camry, passed the Altima going south (the Altima was pointed north). The other backup unit was trailing and had not passed the Altima.
This is where things happen very, very quickly and confusingly. Detective Isnora says he attached his badge to his collar or lapel and ran toward the car, gun drawn, shouting “Police! Freeze!” His commander, Lieutenant Gary Napoli, in the Camry a few feet away, has testified that he did not hear anyone shout “Police.” So far, no other non-police witness has testified to hearing anyone shout the word “police,” though some have testified to hearing shouting along with the gunshots.
Bell, upon seeing Isnora, sped away from the curb, grazing Isnora’s shin (the trial has confirmed a small, purple bruise on Isnora’s leg and forensic evidence confirms that fibers from his pants were found on the front bumper of Bell’s Altima). Bell then hit the trailing minivan head on, backed up into a gate behind him, then lurched forward again into the minivan. Isnora claims to have opened fire at this point, but Guzman claims Isnora opened fire before Bell sped away the first time. James Kallore, Bell’s other friend who did not get in the car, claims the shooting began after the initial crash. So does the back-seat passenger, Benefield.
Regardless, at some point, after the initial or second crash into the van, Detective Michael Oliver, the van’s driver, got out and began firing, as well. In all, Oliver fired 31 shots, going completely through one magazine, reloading, and emptying a second magazine. Isnora fired 11 shots, his entire magazine plus one chambered round, from point-blank range. Detective Marc Cooper, firing from south to north from the Camry, misaimed so badly that he blew out the window of a commuter train station, narrowly avoiding killing or wounding yet another person.
Bell was mortally wounded. Guzman was hit 16 times, three of which exited his body for a total of 19 bullet wounds. He was hit several times in the back as he tried to crawl over Bell to get away from Isnora’s barrage. Benefield was also hit in the back seat, but was able to exit the car and run. While running, he was shot in the back of the leg and fell, immobile.
When more police units arrived, the five detectives who fired said they were unsure how many rounds they had fired. Oliver, the officer who fired 31 shots, pausing to reload, was unsure if he had fired, at all. Cooper was “sure” he had fired only one shot, though ballistics evidence clearly demonstrates that he fired four. All three wounded men were taken to the hospital where Bell later died. Guzman and Benefield survived, but both have permanent disabilities.
Isnora, Oliver, and Cooper are now on trial for manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
Those are the basic facts and, while trial testimony has been as confusing as one might expect from memories fragmented by adrenaline and trauma, what “really” happened that night is actually becoming clearer. And it raises some very important questions about when cops should be given the benefit of the doubt for making life-ending and life-changing mistakes.
What really happened (most likely)
There’s no question, Sean Bell and his friends chose a bad spot to drink and carouse for his bachelor’s party. They had too much to drink (Bell was over the legal limit for driving when he was shot). They foolishly chose a place that was the focus of way to much police attention.
Upon leaving the bar, Bell (probably a somewhat belligerent drunk) got into an argument with a man over going back into the bar to get his jacket. The man (probably a pimp) said, “I got money in there,” probably meaning that one of his “girls” would be giving him her dancing money and, mostly likely, trick money. The probable pimp made motions as though he had a gun, and it’s likely, from testimony, that others got involved in the argument, threatening to “take that gun away.”
Whether Bell’s friend, Guzman, actually said something to the effect that he was going to go get his own gun is in great dispute. The cops must have believed he said it, or it seems unlikely that they would have followed Bell’s group to Bell’s car. On the other hand, Guzman’s testimony that he said nothing of the sort (corroborated by some other witnesses), and that it would have been foolish to bluff a man who probably actually had a gun in his possession, rings true. Chances are, Guzman said something that was misheard by the police as either “gun” or “gat.”
Bell and his two friends got into his car, in the darkness, with the windows closed. At that point, they saw a man (Isnora) running towards them with a gun drawn. The man may or may not have been screaming something, and he may or may not have had his badge pinned to his outer clothing, but it’s unlikely that Bell could make out either the words, with the windows closed, or the badge in the darkness. Benefield claims to have seen the man and then covered his eyes before the shooting started. Guzman says he saw the man only at the last moment, when he opened fire.
Having just had an argument with a man who made motions as though he had a gun, Bell panicked. He lurched forward, clipping Isnora and running head on into the police van coming down Liverpool on the wrong side of the street. Whether Isnora and/or Oliver opened up at that point is not clear, but Bell, still trying to get away either from the threat or from real bullets, backed up, slammed into the gate, then accelerated into the van, again. Chances are, he hit the van the second time because he was already wounded, so it seems likely that Isnora, at least, began firing almost immediately. His testimony that he began firing only after the car hit the van the second time is not credible, since he wasn’t able to tell police how many times he had fired, even with a rough approximation. His memory is suspect.
On the other side, the police who had been in the club, mainly Isnora, had also been drinking, though no sobriety test was ever done on them. They really wanted that last bust to close down the Kalua, but they had no luck getting a proposition from a suspected prostitute or an offer to sell from a suspected dealer. A weapons charge presented itself, and they went after it.
Isnora didn’t clearly communicate who had a gun, where it might be, whether the issue was in doubt, or much of anything, really, to his backup units. All they knew was that they were heading into a particularly dangerous situation with a number of unknown factors.
Police coordination was terrible. Isnora waited for his backup vehicles to arrive before confronting Bell, which meant that Bell and his friends were sealed inside the car before Isnora made his move. He may or may not have shouted “Police! Freeze!,” before Bell spotted him and panicked, and he may or may not have displayed a badge. Isnora failed to think through the issue of what he would look like to Bell (who had been drinking all night) as a man with a gun, approaching Bell in the dark, immediately after Bell had had an argument with a man who threatened him with a gun. He also failed to consider the fact that Bell would have difficulty seeing a badge in the dark (and it turns out that Bell was legally blind in one eye) and difficulty hearing much in his closed automobile.
When Bell clipped Isnora, and slammed into the van, Isnora panicked and started shooting (the most likely scenario, I believe, at this point). Oliver, upon being hit in the van and hearing the shots, and “knowing” there was a gun out there somewhere, jumped out of the van, scared out of his mind, and pumped out two magazines of bullets as fast as his trigger finger could twitch. Bell, in the hail of gunfire, backed up, then put it in forward, but was unable to turn to avoid the van a second time because he was so badly wounded.
So, there you have it: the most likely scenario for what really happened that night. Bell and his friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time, were unfortunate enough to get into a verbal dispute with a man who made motions as though he had a gun, and were probably misunderstood (in Guzman’s case) to bluff about having a gun somewhere else. The police were anxious to make a bust, may well have been impaired by alcohol (in Isnora’s case), were very confused about who had a gun and whether a gun was confirmed, failed to think through the effects of running towards an enclosed car in a tense atmosphere with a gun drawn, and the effect that would have on the occupants of that car if they were unable to tell that the gunman was a cop.
These cops won’t be convicted. There is too much doubt about motive and what actually happened that night (what I have presented is where I think probability lies, but it is not established beyond a reasonable doubt). Bell’s loved ones will probably win a civil suit because of police negligence (actually, I suspect it will be settled out of court), but only because civil suits have lower evidence bars to hurdle than criminal ones.
When should cops go to prison?
All this raises a very important issue: Exactly when does negligence on the part of the police become punishable by prison time? I’ll tell you what I think, and then I’d like to hear what you think.
I have enormous sympathy for the cop who goes into a dark hallway with a known shooter, then kills the resident who sticks her head out the door. That’s an accident. The gun is drawn, the nerves are taut, and it’s perfectly understandable that the cop reacted with deadly force in that situation. Moreover, there was no time to second guess a snap decision. To me, it is those two factors, the situation itself and the amount of time available for decision-making, that define the boundary between “accident” and “criminal negligence.”
In the Sean Bell case, the real situation was that someone might have said he’d go get a gun, that may or may not exist, and if there were a gun, might have perpetrated a crime with it. In other words, this was not an immediate, do-or-die situation. This was a possible situation that may have turned out (as it did) to be a false alarm. And there was plenty of time to contemplate the issues and tactics. Taking on Bell and his friends was no snap decision. Isnora followed the group for almost an entire, long city block. He should have known that approaching these men in the dark, gun drawn, in an enclosed car, would have made it difficult, or even impossible, for them to understand that he was a police officer. Still, he waited until they were cocooned in their car before initiating the chain of events that led to one dead and two badly wounded men who had simply been enjoying a late night out before the dead man’s wedding day.
In this case, I believe that Oliver (the 31-shot guy) and Cooper, the guy who hit the train station, were in a situation they believed to be very dangerous with no time to make anything but snap decisions. What they did was to accidentally kill and wound innocent people. But they were in this position because Isnora didn’t do his job. Isnora was criminally negligent, and should go to prison for it.
That won’t happen, but it should. And I submit that it’s time to start holding police criminally responsible for stupid, negligent actions like his. Putting on a badge doesn’t give you the right to shoot and kill “just in case.”