A Seven-Year Ricochet

With an Eye Lost, a Police Shooting Victim Waits for Justice

The couple married on February 14, 2002. They have a beaming, powerfully healthy-looking seven-month-old, Mark Sebastian, who is also a survivor: Silverio gave birth to twins three months prematurely, and the tiny daughter died after only two days.

Stevens has patrolled with a partner, the kind of duty the officers were on when Silverio got hurt. Reluctant to talk about the causes of this kind of incident, Stevens says that he can speak only "as a husband." He does understand, though, that "there are a lot of factors and there's always pressures" that might lead someone to make "a mistake."

Juberky Silverio Stevens, wounded February 16, 1997, by a ricocheting police bullet
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Juberky Silverio Stevens, wounded February 16, 1997, by a ricocheting police bullet

Vivian Rodriguez, wounded August 4, 2003, in a police raid
Less than a month after Silverio's shooting, on March 3, 1997, then police commissioner Howard Safir announced a controversial plan to switch the entire NYPD force from full-metal-jacket bullets to hollow-point bullets. Hollow-points, also known as dumdums, expand in jagged pieces inside the body and do more widespread damage than the full-metal-jackets, which have more penetrating power but tend to ricochet as they did the night Silverio was hit. The NYPD cited the fact that seven bystanders had been hit the previous year by full-metal-jackets that passed through walls or other people.

"There is no evidence that I'm aware of that hollow-points are more lethal," Safir said then. Hollow-points had already been in use by housing authority and transit cops since 1990. While Safir gave figures for the distances the two kinds of bullets would penetrate in a target, according to the New York Daily News, he refused to release the NYPD's study on hollow-points.

Safir's statement set off a full-fledged public debate, particularly among the mayoral candidates in the 1997 campaign. As Newsday reported in advocating the switch at the time, candidate Reverend Al Sharpton said of the hollow-point bullet, "It's a walking death penalty." Candidate Ruth Messinger said, "It's worth an experiment to find out." Candidate Fernando Ferrer said it "shouldn't be used in New York City," and candidate Rudolph Giuliani said, "I'll take another look at it. . . . It's not a done deal until I finally approve it." He did.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board also recommended the switch, which did not actually take place until 1999, not long after the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo, in which police fired 41 full-metal-jacket bullets, 19 of which hit him. Vivian Rodriguez was shot this month by a 9mm Glock handgun, and presumably a hollow-point bullet, that grazed her right forearm and entered her right abdomen.

One of the delaying complications of Silverio's case is that Hernandez, the man stopped with the BB gun, was charged with causing her injuries via "transferred intent," according to Gross, meaning that his actions are viewed as provoking the shooting. Hernandez was tried and acquitted, and, according to Gross, after his acquittal, filed suit. The two cases were later joined. As Vivian Rodriguez has been charged with receiving stolen property, she will face a similar situation in pursuing her suit.

According to the New York City Law Department, the city is "the most commonly sued entity in the state, and probably in the entire nation," with "roughly 48,000" pending cases and 8,200 new suits begun during 2002. (Due to the blackout, the NYC Corporation Counsel was unable to provide the number of suits pending against the NYPD by press time.)

An NYPD spokesperson says the department has no numbers yet for 2003 on police-involved shootings; however, four men were killed in the first two days of the year: Jamal Nixon, Anthony Reid, Allen Newsome, and John Lagattuta. Since then, Ousmane Zongo and Melvin Sylvester have been fatally shot, and Alberta Spruill died from cardiac arrest when a flash grenade was lobbed into her apartment during a botched no-knock raid. The department says that in 2002 there were 12 fatal police-involved shootings and 11 in 2001.

Numbers are down from earlier decades—according to an Amnesty International report, the average of fatal police shootings in the early 1970s was a shocking 63 a year—but recent incidents leading to citizen deaths are still disturbing. And these numbers do not include cases like Spruill's, where no gun is involved.

"We don't play the numbers game," said Brooklyn councilmember Charles Barron. "Tell that to the mother of a child who has been killed. The police are out of control, whether it's 10 shootings or 10,000. They are out of control with the stop-and-frisks, out of control with racial profiling."

Barron is calling for an independent state agency to investigate police misconduct "whether it's discourtesy, brutality, or murder"—and for police found in the wrong to be prosecuted. "There is no agency that addresses police brutality that is independent of the police," he says. "The police have to be shown that they're not above the law." He is also calling for a residency law, requiring officers to live within the city, and says the NYPD should "get rid of hollow-point bullets."

"I think there are a few people in the [police] department who are either poorly trained, or just doing a bad job," said Gross. "The vast majority are doing a good job, and the city has one of the best departments in the country." Asked if he'd seen any difference since the Bloomberg administration came in, Gross said, "I think Bloomberg's more receptive to acknowledging when there is a deficiency, as opposed to Giuliani who would give a knee-jerk response to these kind of incidents." Barron is less complimentary. "Giuliani was so bad," he said, "and we've been so Giuliani-ized that we think anybody who comes in is so much better."

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