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Paul Browne, the NYPD's commissioner of public information, says that after Club Enforcement cops stabilized the situation in Manhattan's clubs, they started to branch out to problem places in the outer boroughs.
Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, calls such initiatives "overpolicing." "What are these cops doing in a strip bar in Jamaica at four in the morning listening to trash talk?" O'Donnell says. "You've got alcohol and drugs being used and then you have cops bringing firearms and deadly force into the picture. So you have trouble. . . . We've got to stop overpolicing everything."
Browne says the Kalua Cabaret, at 143-08 94th Avenue, was well worth police attention because of a "chronic history of narcotics, prostitution, and weapons complaints there." The strip joint had been closed in July 2005 for prostitution and underage drinking. Since it reopened in October 2005, police have been called to the club 26 times for 911 emergencies and have made eight arrests for prostitution, drugs, or weapons. The most recent arrests, for drugs and prostitution, came only four days before the Bell shooting. One more documented violation and the club would face another city-forced closure.
Around 12:40 a.m. on November 26, two undercover officers, whose names police have not released, entered Kalua. They left their guns and badges in their car outside because bouncers frisked all entering patrons and they didn't want their cover blown.
The officers milled about the club, nursing two beers each while trying to get in on drug or prostitution deals, according to NYPD officials. Later, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said two beers is permissible under NYPD policy. Such moderate drinking allows undercovers to blend in. Although officials didn't administer Breathalyzers, a supervisor on the scene determined that the officers were fit for duty, Kelly said. A retired detective who did undercover work and who spoke to the Voice on the condition of anonymity says blending in often means drinking more than the two drinks allowed.
Around 3 a.m., one of the undercovers, who had recently been transferred to the Club Enforcement unit after saying he was tired of making undercover drug buys in Brooklyn, saw a man he thought was a bouncer approach one of the club's dancers. She had apparently been arguing with some customers earlier that night. The bouncer patted his waistband and told the dancer not to worry, because he had her back. The undercover took it as a sign that the man had a gun. The officer left the club; called his lieutenant, Jerry Napoli, on his cell phone; and told him there may be trouble. The undercover remained outside, and as the club closed, the man he suspected of having the gun left, according to police sources.
Around 4 a.m., Sean Bell, Joseph Guzman, and Trent Benefield filed out of the club with other patrons. The undercover watched as Bell, his friends, and about five others argued with and, according to police spokesman Paul Browne, threatened a man who was standing by a black SUV in front of the club.
A witness later told police that he heard Bell say, "Let's fuck him up." According to police officials, the undercover heard Guzman chime in, "Yo, get my gun, get my gun." The men then split into two groups, with Bell's group heading east on 94th Avenue before walking onto Liverpool Avenue, where Bell's Nissan Altima was parked.
As he trailed Bell, the undercover called his lieutenant again, according to officials, and told him, "It's getting hot" and "I think there's a gun." The lieutenant, in an unmarked van, was being followed by another minivan and a Toyota Camry, each occupied by two officers. All the cops were in street clothes.
After Bell and the others climbed into the Altima, the undercover cop who was trailing them crossed the street and confronted them, gun out and his leg up on the car's bumper. At this point, it's not known why he did that. Commissioner Kelly would later admit that the undercover's actions were "unusual" and not the way police ideally map out such takedowns.
Bernard Cole, a former NYPD detective who worked undercover, was more critical of that tactic. "It's Policing 101 when you're in plain clothes," Cole says. None of the men was brandishing a gun, and none of them was menacing anyone, he says, "so the threat wasn't imminent. The cops should've surveilled the guy, called in a radio car, and let the uniforms take care of it." But to call in the uniformed cops, Cole notes, would have meant turning over a gun collar, a cherished arrest for NYPD cops.
What followed next was a chain reaction of mistakes for the plainclothes Club Enforcement cops. Benefield has told police he didn't hear the undercover identify himself as a cop and that he and his two friends thought the man was trying to rob them. As one of the unmarked police vans tried to pin the Altima in its parking space, Bell jerked the car forward, knocking aside the undercover and striking the van. Bell threw the Altima into reverse, driving up on a sidewalk and crashing into the security gate of a nearby store. Then he started forward and again crashed into the van.