Suspects as Usual

After the Sean Bell shooting, the NYPD opened a surprising investigation—into the victims

A year earlier, police took similar actions in the aftermath of their fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. Hours after the infamous February 4, 1999, 41-bullet barrage, police searched the tiny apartment the African immigrant shared in the Bronx, upending beds and drawers. Diallo's cousin, Abdourahmane Diallo, and another roommate were taken into custody and questioned for several hours about Amadou's background. Detectives asked Abdourahmane if Amadou had any enemies who might want to hurt him even as they kept from him the fact that police had killed him.

Detectives also scoured Diallo's past for a criminal record—which he didn't have. However, word was leaked to the press that Diallo, who was hit 19 times after police allegedly mistook his wallet for a gun, had lied on an asylum application. He claimed he was from Mauritania, where slavery is common; that his parents were beaten to death as part of an ethnic-cleansing campaign; and that he had been held in a military camp before escaping. In truth, he was from a relatively well-off family from Guinea but lied because he wanted to stay in the United States.

"[The police] leaked his immigration status," Diallo's attorney, Kyle Watters, told the Voice. "It seemed like there was an attempt to cloud the reputation or goodness, if that's a word, of Mr. Diallo. . . . The dirt that they dug up, if you want to call it dirt, certainly had no relevance to what happened at the scene."

Sean Bell's friend Jean Nelson was identified by police as the alleged "fourth man."
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Sean Bell's friend Jean Nelson was identified by police as the alleged "fourth man."

Details

See also:
  • The 50-Day Vigil for Sean Bell
    Open thread in Power Plays
  • Waiting All Night for Justice
    Photo gallery
  • The NYPD's penchant for parallel investigation goes back further. On July 4, 1996, Nathaniel Levi Gaines Jr., a 25-year-old Navy veteran of the first Gulf war, was shot and killed by Officer Paolo Colecchia on a subway platform in the Bronx. Colecchia made several claims as to why he pulled the trigger—Gaines had a gun; Gaines was stalking a woman; Gaines tried to throw him onto the tracks. As Colecchia tried to get his story together, his brethren attempted to dig up dirt on Gaines, going to the office of the New York State Thruway Authority, where he worked as a toll taker, and questioning his co-workers. In fact, police were so busy with this parallel investigation that no one from the NYPD notified Gaines's parents of his death. That job fell to a reporter seeking comment on the questionable shooting.

    Meanwhile, a witness had seen Colecchia shoot Gaines in the back as he ran down the subway platform. Colecchia served three years in prison on a manslaughter conviction. He was the last city police officer to do prison time for a line-of-duty killing.

    "They tried all sort of things to cover it up," the victim's stepmother, Mary Gaines, told the Voice. "We immediately knew it was all a bunch of lies. That's just the way they do things."

    She said Gaines's father, Nathaniel Sr., who served in Vietnam, died 14 months after his son's death. Nathaniel Sr. was stricken with cancer, the wife said, but his son's death drained him of his will to fight it.

    "You don't want to know how something like this destroys a family," she said.

    But keeping the police department's reputation from being destroyed is what it's all about. One of the most notorious New York City police shootings bears that out. On April 28, 1973, Clifford Glover, a five-foot, 98-pound 10-year-old, was shot in the back while running away from Officer Thomas Shea in South Jamaica.

    While looking for two people who had robbed a taxi driver, Shea and his partner encountered the boy and his stepfather, Add Armstead, who were heading to the latter's job at a junkyard. Shea contended that as he approached the stepfather and son, the boy fired a shot at him. Shea said he returned fire, striking the boy, who then ran. Before falling, the boy passed the gun off to his father, Shea claimed.

    Meanwhile, Shea's fellow cops conducted a frenetic parallel investigation. In his book The Trial of Patrolman Thomas Shea, author Thomas Hauser described how "patrolmen from the 103rd Precinct reviewed files at the Queens County Narcotics Bureau in hope of finding Add Armstead, Eloise Glover [the boy's mother], or Clifford Glover mentioned as a suspect." Hauser also wrote that police also futilely pursued a tip from an "anonymous source" that "the real Clifford Glover" had died three days after birth and that the child shot by Shea had been shipped to New York by a cousin of Eloise Glover "for welfare purposes."


    Even after investigators had come up empty for a couple of days, Hauser wrote, a police union trustee urged the "investigating" cops, "Keep trying. There has to be something out there that will substantiate Shea's story."

    The facts didn't help Shea. Al Gaudelli, who prosecuted the cop for the Queens D.A., told the Voice that no gun was found. Ballistics tests showed that Shea shot the boy "T-square in the back," Gaudelli added. Still, a jury acquitted Shea (though he was later fired from the NYPD because of the incident).

    The Glover shooting highlights one of the primary reasons that cops pursue parallel investigations: to try to save their jobs. "Shea really thought he had the robbers in that cab robbery, but he didn't say that," Gaudelli said. "He knew that under police guidelines the only time you could shoot was if there was imminent fear of deadly force, which there wasn't. So he said, 'I saw they had a pistol,' instead.

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