New Year's Grief

'Justified' Shootings Spotlight Police Policy Issues

Within 48 hours of police banging in the first two days of the New Year with the fatal shootings of four civilians—the same amount of time officers can avoid questioning after such an incident—the story disappeared from the headlines. The reasonable call from the victims' families that no one rush to judgment appears unworthy of news slots reserved for the finger-pointing protests and fiery rhetoric that often accompany police shootings. But this week some activists and politicians are questioning police procedure and calling for law enforcement reforms.

"No one here is saying you're dealing with saints or a situation that doesn't have questions," said Reverend Al Sharpton at a Saturday press conference with City Council member Charles Barron and the families of two of the civilians fatally shot last week. "But we want all the answers. The issue here, even if the situations are as [the police] said, is the use of deadly force and why the police use the force, where and how they use it. Particularly if someone was shot in the back. Particularly if there was multiple shots. Particularly if there were delays in hospital services. There are many issues."

Preliminarily, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has called the shootings justified despite not having interviewed the officers who fired the shots due to a department protocol that temporarily shields them from scrutiny. In an elaborate press conference, Kelly defended police actions with a dazzling display of charts and maps based on secondary sources that clearly explained the circumstances of the shootings so far as is now known.

The first shooting occurred minutes into the new year in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. A sergeant and captain shot Jamal Nixon, 19, after he had apparently engaged in celebratory gunfire. Nixon was shot twice in the back. Later that morning, also in Brownsville, police fatally shot Anthony Reid, 21, after observing him allegedly shooting at a car outside a club. He was shot twice in both the back and legs. On January 2, in Hamilton Heights, Allen Newsome, 17, was shot after allegedly pulling a fake gun on undercover officers. That evening in Bensonhurst, John Lagattuta, 35, was shot as cops attempted to arrest him on suspicion of car theft.

Barron, an adviser to two of the families and the primary elected official pursuing an independent inquiry into the incidents, thinks there is a solid basis for an inquiry. "There's a lot of conflicting stories about what has happened and even the police account alone doesn't make sense. First of all, I spoke to commanding officer Miller at the 73rd Precinct about both [the Nixon and Reid] shootings. . . . There was no trading shots with [Nixon]," said Barron. "I asked him did Jamal shoot his weapon; he said, 'No.' "

Barron is also curious as to how Kelly arrived at a "justified" conclusion. "Number one, who told you all of this?" asked Barron. "You didn't talk to the officers. You're not sure where [Nixon's] entry wounds are, exit wounds are, locations of the wounds. You got two eyewitnesses that were on the 13th, 14th floor, [at] midnight and 200 feet away—how can you say even preliminarily that this is justified?"

The National Action Network (NAN) has launched a private investigation overseen by Barron and Kelvin Alexander, a former sergeant and 20-year veteran of the NYPD. The fact that ranking officers and detectives were involved doesn't shake their certainty that they'll get to the truth. "We would hope that the city and the police department would cooperate with whatever investigation the family wants so that we can come to a final and just and fair conclusion," said Sharpton.

In addition to the investigation, Sharpton and Barron are again calling for the 48-hour rule to be eliminated and residency requirements for cops. This week there has been considerable criticism of the deadly force policy and calls to review that aspect of the training. Critics are speculating as to whether police objectives are to apprehend suspects or shoot them. Councilmember James Davis called for retraining in the use of deadly force. An NYPD spokesman said that retraining is not necessary. In a new twist, Sharpton and Barron are also calling for reform of the secret grand jury process to allow attorneys for victim's families to assist the D.A. in presenting evidence to the jurors.

Although the NYPD releases the criminal records, if any, of its shooting victims with their official statements, they do not always release information on the officers involved. "They're always asking the family about the victims. . . . Who are these officers? Do they have any priors? Did they shoot before? Do they have any civilian complaints?" said Barron. While the recent victims' records were published immediately, it wasn't until the January 5 New York Post reported that one officer involved in the Reid shooting had also shot and killed another young man while off duty last summer, that any real coverage was given to police backgrounds. The case is still under review.

As the investigations continue, both official and independent, four families are opening the new year with funeral arrangements and the NYPD has already accrued a number of deaths that equals a third of last year's total.

 
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