Death Grip

How the NYPD Explains the Senseless Killing of an Unarmed Black Man

[W]ith my left hand, I grabbed his hair to try to get him out from under the car. I pulled, he pulled back. I pulled him again. I got him out of the car . . . up to his shoulders. He pulled back again the third time; that's when I grabbed him with my right hand. I grabbed his hair and I pulled him back. I had him about halfway out. He pulled back, and that's when I heard a pop.—From the deposition of police officer Jaime Palermo, April 19, 2001

[Police officer Lawrence] Ursitti stated that based on accidental discharge reports, which he has occasion to review as part of his duties, the most dangerous and accident-prone situations occur when an officer is in close contact with a suspect. In the close-combat course offered by his unit, officers are taught to beware of unholstering their weapon in close-contact situations because pulling on a suspect with the free hand produces a grip reflex in the gun hand to make a fist, creating a danger of accidental discharge.—Josefina Martinez, NYPD assistant deputy commissioner of trials, after the departmental trial of police officer Jaime Palermo, July 6, 2000


Once again, the New York Police Department has proven that cops should not police cops. Once again, at a sham trial, the NYPD has come up with a shameful hypothesis—the "grip reflex"—to explain how one of its so-called "Finest" could justifiably gun down an unarmed black man he found hiding under a car. Once again, it has sanctioned the notion among some white cops that black blood is cheap.

In July of last year, after a one-day departmental trial, Josefina Martinez, the assistant deputy commissioner of trials, ruled that police officer Jaime Palermo "did negligently and/or carelessly discharge his service firearm," resulting in the 1996 fatal shooting of Steve Excell, a devout Rasta. The punishment, Martinez concluded, fits the crime. Palermo lost 30 vacation days, was "retrained," given his gun back, and, according to one irate law-enforcement source, is "somewhere in the city policing the 'hood." Sharon Excell, the victim's widow, is suing the NYPD and Palermo in a wrongful-death action that once again attempts to hold Palermo and the force behind him responsible. But Martinez has crafted the ultimate excuse for Palermo's deadly behavior. "I realize that [Palermo] was involved in a fast-moving situation and that the period of time between each of his attempts to physically extricate the suspect was less than a few seconds," she wrote. "I am likewise cognizant of the ease with which one can evaluate the facts of an event after it has unfolded and I recognize that [Palermo], in the heat of the moment, did not have this luxury."

Sharon Excell did not have the luxury of explaining the situation to the eight officers who were summoned to her home in Jamaica, Queens, in the early morning hours of June 19, 1996. According to Martinez's summary of the trial, the cops, including Palermo, found Sharon hysterical and screaming. She told Sergeant Timothy Curley of the 103rd Precinct that she "had been beaten with an electrical cord" by her husband. She showed the officers "the marks on her back from the beating and told them that her husband would kill her if they left."

Curley and the contingent of cops searched the apartment "room by room" until one officer discovered that Steve Excell had "fled" through a closet staircase leading to the roof. Curley, Palermo, and another cop, Edward Monahan, bolted out the front door where Curley spotted the dreadlocks climbing down a tree and then a fence onto the sidewalk. Excell sprinted along 90th Avenue, heading toward Jamaica Avenue. Palermo led the chase. "By the time they reached Jamaica Avenue, about two blocks away, they had lost sight of the suspect," Martinez wrote. "Curley and Monahan turned left on Jamaica and walked toward a small grocery store. . . . [Palermo] walked into the street and approached a lone car parked near the front of the store." During a deposition last month at the Greenwich Village office of attorney Ron Kuby, who is representing the Excell family, Palermo described in grim detail how he snuffed out Steve Excell's life.

"I saw a white car, like in the middle of the block, and I just walked up to it and, still looking into the doorways of the buildings, I stopped in front of the driver's side door and just stood there," the officer recalled. "As I was looking into the doorways of the buildings, for no apparent reason, I just ended up looking down on the ground and I saw his hair sticking out from under the car. So immediately after that, I mean that split second, right there, I kind of froze and maybe a second or two, that's when I stepped back, withdrew my weapon, pointed it at the direction of where I saw the hair and yelled at him repeatedly, 'Police, let me see your hands! Let me see your hands! Come out from under the car!' I said it at least three times, very loud. He didn't move.

"At that point, with my left hand, I grabbed his hair to try to get him from under the car. I pulled, he pulled back. I pulled him again. I got him out of the car . . . up to his shoulders. He pulled back again the third time; that's when I grabbed him with my right hand. I grabbed his hair and I pulled him back. I had him about halfway out. He pulled back, and that's when I heard a pop. At that point, I dropped him, and I thought he fired a weapon. So I told him, 'Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands!' 'Cause I still couldn't see his hands. I kept yelling at him, 'Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands!' He wouldn't move. So at that time, I holstered my weapon and I straddled him. As he was laying down, face down, I stepped over him and kept telling him [to] put his hand behind his back, and that's when I saw his right hand next to his head, and it had a little bit of blood on his hand. At that point, I thought I shot him in the hand but he still wouldn't move. So at that point, I went over and I moved his head and that's when his hair parted and I saw a hole in the back of his head.

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