American Culture

What does Sean Bell's acquittal say about how we should judge police?

by JS O’Brien

I predicted three weeks ago that the cops who killed Sean Bell and wounded his friends in a 50-shot barrage would be acquitted.  Given the burden of proof on the prosecution and the testimony presented in court, I just didn’t see a way the judge would find the accused guilty.Â

 Today, all three accused officers were found not guilty on all charges.

As I’ve posted before, Bell was killed not because the police did anything criminal, but because they royally screwed up.  They may have been cowards, they may have been trying to make a bust, any bust, to put a period on the end of their last night as a unit, but they were certainly incompetent.

As a society, we have long tolerated incompetence in our police forces.  Many of us even gladly tolerate outright criminal behavior from cops if it’s aimed at potential lawbreakers, reasoning that the accused, who have not been convicted of any crime, deserve what they get.  It’s a strange attitude in a society predicated on mistrust of government and its agents, isn’t it?  No one ever said the American public is consistent.

The three officers were acquitted because it is not against the law to be bad at your job.  All an officer has to do to justify deadly force is claim he believed his life was in danger.  It doesn’t actually have to be in danger.  The prosecution generally has to prove that the officer couldn’t have believed this, which is a very tough burden, indeed.

The broad outline of the events in this case is no longer in dispute.  The police say they went after some men who might have a gun that they might use.  Communication and coordination were simply awful.  Most of the cops there that night thought they knew there was a gun somewhere, but they didn’t know where.  The cop who initiated events waited until the men were in a closed car and then approached with gun drawn while in plain clothes.  The men probably couldn’t hear him say “police,” couldn’t see his badge in the dark, and panicked, as most of us would.  The driver, Sean Bell, tried to escape from what he must have felt was an attempt on their lives.

Sadly, he was right.

Are we, as citizens, going to continue to allow incompetence as an excuse for killing innocent people?  It’s one thing for a cop to hit an innocent bystander in a gunfight.  That’s a mistake, sure, but it’s one that was made under extreme duress with microseconds to think.  It’s quite another to create a situation in which cops kill because they did stupid and negligent things that led to those deaths.  It’s not just this case.  Cops have been known to break down doors in no-knock raids on the wrong houses, killing one or more innocent residents who thought they were defending themselves from criminals.  In Denver, a cop entered a house he did not need to enter and killed a bedridden resident, without warning, who had every right to be there, because said resident had a soda can in his hand.

I’m sure that you know many more examples.

If you’re going to carry a gun with the intent to use it, whether you’re a cop or a private citizen, you should go to jail if you’re negligent with that gun.  We send people to prison if they kill by being negligent with an automobile, a machine that is not designed to kill.  But if we’re negligent with a deadly weapon, we most often walk free.

It’s time we changed the law to hold people, cops and citizens alike, responsible for criminal negligence with weapons.

13 replies »

  1. Of course, we’d have a better chance at getting competent cops if we paid them a decent working wage…

  2. A decent wage? What is a decent wage? In most large cities the police are paid MUCH more than the average blue collar worker. Take Clearwater, Florida for instance. There the police make over $50K a year with only a few years on the job. Take Chicago, Illinois. The police there also make mucho bucks for being police officers. Heck, the retirement pay for a detective from the Chicago, IL police is about $6100 a month. Imagine that. So don’t say the pay is not there. It is. What we have are incompetent people in positions of authority who feel they have the RIGHT and the POWER to control people and yes, even KILL them with impunity. Seems like they do. Doesn’t it? The police in this country are out of control and we, the People MUST reign them in with all the corrupt policticians out there. Time for a REVOLUTION in this country and it is coming soon.

  3. If someone tries to run you over with a car, just move out of the way. Get the plate number. There is no explanation for this. Judge got lots of money to come up with such veredict.

  4. PatriotActor:

    My experience wth pay systems in large organizations is that base pay, unless it is extremely high or extremely low, has almost no impact on attraction, retention, or performance. The real issues tend to be supply and demand in the labor force.

    As for cop pay, Ryan is right. Cops tend to be paid extremely well given the fact that most have high school educations and, if they do have college educations, criminal justice ranks right up there with recreation management on the scale of difficulty.


    I wouldn’t go that far, guy. I will say that we voters need to demand that cops undergo thorough psychological testing before hire, be held criminially responsible for negligence, and get stiff jail terms for covering up for the criminal acts of other officers.

    That should weed out the bullies and incompetents.

  5. Their pay is not the issue. Those three officers should have been charged with criminal negligence along with several other charges as is the case in most gun incidents involving private citizens. Prosecutors have the discretion to decide which charges to file. In this case, they choose to bring charges which, as noted, are very difficult to prove. I believe this was rigged from the start to protect the officers so as not to anger the entire force. Most people, including politicians, are now afraid of the police in large part because they seem to be acting with impunity.

    That brings up another point relevant to this case and others like it. Law enforcement applicants in most cities are subjected to a psychological test to determine their mind set when it comes to taking control and following orders without question. The end result of such testing is that the people most likely to be hired are of the same bent as those asking the questions. Because many of them have military backgrounds, this has led to the militarization of local law enforcement. They are taught that they are on a “mission” and nothing short of freedom and liberty are at stake. Because of the type of personality of law enforcement in general, most officers tend to believe in their superiors’ judgement no matter how far fetched. For a good example, just read the reports on the 2004 WTO meeting in Miami. I can understand this in an army for defense but that is also the reason the army was kept from domestic duties.

  6. About pay… In February, two of those under-educated, overpaid sheriff’s deputies lifted me, too cramped to move, out of a bathroom full of my brother’s blood. One of them knelt in the pool to hold his arteries closed until the EMTs arrived, talking to him all the while, checking his respiration and response while doing an accurate inventory of the drugs and weapons present. The other, a woman smaller than I am, essentially carried me down the stairs, treated me for shock, and managed to extract the limited information I had while remaining calm, sympathetic and professional. She left me her card, and later in the evening, in answer to my message, called me from her own home to help me find the hospital where my brother had been taken.

    Why shouldn’t someone who risks his or her life doing a mostly thankless, repetitive, disheartening, life-threatening and absolutely essential job make a good wage? After all, are we paying them for their level of accredited education or are we paying them for the work they do? If JS’s screening ideas were implemented and public service, integrity, competence, diligence and self-sacrifice became the norm for law enforcement officials, I would gladly vote them even more money and better benefits.

    Especially those two deputies.

  7. Unfortunately, I also believe that Average Citizen is exactly right about the hiring process and mindset of most law enforcement organizations.

  8. Euphronsyne:

    Want to know something funny about overall pay in the US (and in the world, I would guess)? Poor working conditions have a negative correlation to pay scale. In other words, the more dangerous and dirty the job, the less it tends to pay.

    The way I see it, people who want to be cops know what it pays and know the risks going in (the risks are actually quite a bit less than some other jobs. Logging is far more dangerous, for instance, than police work). They also know the intrinsic rewards. If they then actually do their jobs, as they did in your case, that’s a good thing. But I think I’ll hold off on canonizing them.

    My father was once a cop. Cops used to come to my house a lot and I’d hear them talk.

    I keep away from them.

  9. My stepdad was a career Fed. I have to say most of his law enforcement buddies, now retired, give me the creeps.

  10. Sean Bell was a crack dealer, but this is never mentioned for some reason, so everyone just assumes a ‘normal’ guy was killed and not a career criminal, which he was. Not that he deserved to be killed whilst trying to flee from chaos, but he wasn’t shot at because he was black. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and acting suspiciously, which, considering his ‘profession’ isn’t that surprising. Its just so irritating that this is turned into a race issue, when two of the cops just acquitted in this case were black themselves.

  11. Why are people so quick to assume “incompetence?”

    If it’s intentional it’s not incompetence. It’s … murder.

    “Incompetence” is not a legal defense.

    It’s also just an opinion.

  12. johndoraemi:

    I’ll be happy to discuss incompetence with you if you like, but you’ll need to read my original piece for the rationale. It’s linked in the post, above.