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.Â Given the burden of proof on the prosecution andÂ the testimony presented in court, I just didn’t see a way the judge would find the accused guilty.Â
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.Â 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.Â 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.Â It’s a strange attitude in a society predicated on mistrust of government and its agents, isn’t it?Â 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.Â All an officer has to do to justify deadly force is claim he believed his life was in danger.Â It doesn’t actually have to be in danger.Â The prosecution generallyÂ 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.Â The police say they went after some men who might have a gun that they might use.Â Communication and coordination were simply awful.Â Most of the cops there that night thought they knew there was a gun somewhere, but they didn’t know where.Â The cop who initiated events waited until the men were in a closed car and then approached with gun drawn while in plain clothes.Â The men probably couldn’t hear him say “police,” couldn’t see his badge in the dark, and panicked, as most of us would.Â 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?Â It’s one thing for a cop to hit an innocent bystander in a gunfight.Â That’s a mistake, sure, but it’s one that was made under extreme duress with microseconds to think.Â It’s quite another to create a situation in which cops kill because they did stupid and negligent things that led to those deaths.Â It’s not just this case.Â 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.Â 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.Â We send people to prison if they kill by being negligent with an automobile, a machine that is not designed to kill.Â But if we’re negligent with a deadly weapon, we most often walk free.
It’sÂ time we changed the law to hold people, cops andÂ citizens alike,Â responsible for criminal negligence with weapons.