Guns Gone Wild

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

"If you're going to run up on someone, what do you think is going to happen?" the victim's father, William Bell Sr., says. "I see you run up with a gun, it's dark, what's your first instinct to do—to get out."

Philip Karasyk, whose law firm represents four of the five policemen in the incident, has contended that the undercover officer had his shield around his neck and yelled, "Police!" as he approached Bell's car. Karasyk has said the detective saw one of the men in the car reaching for his waistband and, assuming he was going for a gun, fired a bullet into the car.

The phrase NYPD officials have been using to describe why five officers would then shoot 49 more bullets into a car without anyone shooting back is "contagious fire": cops shooting because their partners are. It's what happened on the night of February 4, 1999, in the Bronx, when police officers assigned to an anti-gun squad struck Amadou Diallo with 19 of the 41 shots they fired. Later they said they thought that a wallet Diallo was reaching for was a gun. In the shooting a week ago Saturday morning, the detective repeatedly screamed, "He's got a gun," and shot 11 times into Bell's car. One backup officer, Mike Carey, fired three shots. Another detective fired four shots, and a fourth officer added one. At the same time, Oliver, after jumping from the struck van, began his own 31-shot barrage.

illustration: Viktor Koen

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    Sean Bell, who was to be wed to the mother of his two daughters 13 hours later, was hit four times and died from his injuries. Guzman, 31, in the front passenger seat, was struck 11 times and, at last report, was in critical condition. Benefield, 23, in the backseat, was hit three times.

    Meanwhile, Napoli, the lieutenant in charge of the operation, ducked under the dashboard of his van when he heard gunfire, according to police sources. "That lieutenant is a coward," one police union official says. "He didn't establish firearms control. He had poor tactics. He certainly didn't do what he's paid to do, which is supervise."

    And the cops on the scene didn't practice what they were taught. The police training aimed at preventing contagious, or "sympathetic," shooting frenzies is called mass reflective firing. Commissioner Ray Kelly explains: "We stress when officers go to the range that they fire no more than three rounds and then they look, they assess what the situation is, fire no more than three rounds at a time." Despite this training, Kelly concedes that while cops "try to guard against it," contagious shooting "is a phenomenon that does happen in policing. No question about it." Part of the reason may be a clichéd, but nevertheless powerful, tip passed on from one generation of cops to the next with much more frequency than "mass reflective firing training": "Better to be tried by 12 than carried by six."

    Cops are trained to shoot at the torso—and to keep shooting until the threat is no longer present. "The goal," says Cole, who is now a private investigator in club security, "is to go home with as many holes as you went to work with."

    The only problem is that cops, in general, aren't very good shots. Just look at the numbers. The NYPD's 2005 Firearms Discharge Report, which analyzes every police-related shooting, shows that police officers were involved in 16 "gunfights," in which people were firing back, and 43 more "shootings vs. subjects," in which no gunfire was returned. A total of 472 bullets were fired in those 59 incidents, but only 53 bullets hit their targets, giving cops an accuracy rating of just over 11 percent. Meanwhile, the statistics show that 17 people fired a total of 72 bullets at police in 2005. They hit the cops 14 times, or 19 percent of the time, the report states.

    By all accounts, 2005 was an exceedingly inaccurate shooting year for NYPD shooters. Experts say the usual "accuracy" rate for police officers is about 30 percent. But even that rate means that seven out of 10 bullets cops fire are heading for places other than intended. In the Kalua shooting, two Port Authority cops escaped with only minor injuries when a stray bullet broke a window in the nearby AirTrain station; another bullet went through the window of a home, but no one was hit. As many as nine other shots that didn't hit either the men or the car zipped through the neighborhood that night.


    Stray police bullets flying through the crowded streets of the city was the reason Commissioner Ray Kelly gave for never being the biggest fan of semiautomatic firepower for the NYPD.

    John Timoney, former NYPD second in command, who is now the Miami police chief, recalls that 1989 was "the crossover year" in New York in the debate to arm cops with 9mm weapons, because that was the year, for the first time, when the majority of guns the NYPD seized from the streets were semiautomatics. But in a city as crowded as New York, fear of innocent bystanders getting hit by strays caused by officer overfiring was the best argument for the continued use of .38-caliber revolvers. Whereas the 9mm could carry anywhere from 15- to 18-bullet clips, the revolvers were six-shooters.

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