Guns Gone Wild

NYPD gunfire goes up while crime goes down. What gives?

In the pre-dawn hours of November 25, outside the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica, Queens, Detective Mike Oliver squeezed the trigger of his police-issue 9mm pistol in the line of duty for the first time in his 12 years on the force. He squeezed again and again and again until he had fired all 16 shots in the weapon. Then he pushed the extractor button with his thumb, popping out the empty clip, and with his left hand he slapped a 15-round clip up through the hollow handle. He fired and fired until the gun was emptied again—31 shots in 10 to 15 seconds, tops. And he wasn't the only cop firing.

When a supervisor later asked Oliver about the shooting, Oliver was unsure whether he had fired any shots at all, a high-ranking police source tells the Voice. Even making allowances for the extreme adrenaline rush, fear, and confusion that reign at any shooting, police investigators looked askance at Oliver when he said that. Any cop can understand not recalling firing one or two bullets, but two full clips? In the end, the investigators didn't push it, chalking up Oliver's curious statement to shock, the police source said. They jotted down what he said and included his statement in a preliminary report that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown says "raises as many questions as it answers."

When the bullets finally stopped flying a week ago Saturday, Sean Bell, a 23-year-old who had been celebrating his last hours of bachelorhood, was dead, and two of his pals were severely shot up inside Bell's Nissan Altima. The grim totals: Five cops, 50 rounds, one dead, two injured, zero guns found on Bell and the other "suspects."

illustration: Viktor Koen


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  • The semiautomatic frenzy produced what is for New Yorkers a semiautomatic reaction: flashbacks to a similar barrage of police bullets from another special task force unit that killed Amadou Diallo in 1999. As officials sort through the chaotic events, there are other issues at play, such as a lack of training, the possibility of racial profiling, and the allegation of overaggressive policing. But it's the number 50 that sticks in people's craws. That's usually a sports milestone or a significant birthday, not the number of shots cops pump into a car containing unarmed men. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the NYPD's biggest cheerleader, described the hail of bullets as "unacceptable" and "inexplicable."

    "The main thing is the 50 shots," Jonathan Maitre, student government president at Medgar Evers College, told a group of student protesters at a rally outside the Brooklyn school last week. There and elsewhere in the city, a new chant has gone up among protesters: "50 . . . shots! 50 . . . shots!"

    As it turns out, that's not the only curious number. The Bell shooting comes at a time when police officers are firing more bullets per shooting than they have in recent years. Those and other numbers add more doubt concerning city officials' arguments that the city really is a less violent place—even without the Bell shooting.

    The harsh reality: In 2005, New York City police officers fired 616 bullets, about 30 percent more than the 477 annual average from 1999 to 2004. In just one incident last year, police fired 77 shots before winging a gunman who was returning fire outside the Taft Houses in East Harlem. Including the Bell incident, NYPD cops have fired 483 shots this year, putting them on pace for fewer than last year but still about 12 percent more than the 477 average.

    But here's the oddest number of all: In New York City between 1999 and 2005, major crime has plummeted by some 60,000 complaints, about 48 percent. Also, the number of police-involved shooting incidents has actually been lower, by about eight per year, during that time period.

    In other words, police have been getting into fewer shootouts but firing more once it's on.

    And forget about the gang that couldn't shoot straight. In 2005 NYPD cops were less accurate than the bad guys shooting back at them, according to a confidential report obtained by the Voice.

    Police officials shrug off the increase in shots fired as an aberration; they maintain that the NYPD remains one of the most disciplined and restrained police departments in the country when it comes to gun use. For a comparison, they point to the distant past, like 1972, when NYPD cops fired an astounding 2,510 times, using slower-to-reload six-shot revolvers instead of today's 16-round semiautomatics.

    The deadly shooting outside the Kalua Cabaret and all of its resulting furor find their roots in a summer's-night fling by a couple of well-off New Jersey teens getting drunk in a club in Chelsea.

    After a night of partying last July, 18-year-old Jennifer Moore found herself drunk and stranded when her friend, whose car was towed, passed out at the city's impound lot and had to be taken to a hospital by ambulance. As Moore stumbled down the West Side Highway on the morning of July 25, she was abducted by an ex-con and small-time pimp, who took her to a New Jersey hotel and raped and strangled her.

    That high-profile killing, coming on the heels of 24-year-old Imette St. Guillen's being murdered allegedly by a Soho bar bouncer, prompted the NYPD to create the Club Enforcement Task Force. Like so much in policing, the idea was recycled from past NYPD battle plans, most notably the department's Social Club Task Force.

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