Death Takes a Holiday

On Thanksgiving eve, a community mourns alone for yet another victim of a police shooting

A week before Thanksgiving, the name Khiel Daniel Seon Coppin was entered onto one of the city's most pain-filled rosters. These are names that appear on no bronzed monument, but if they did, they might simply be headed this way: Killed in Error, Police Bullets.

These are the victims of deadly rounds that should never have been fired in the first place. They are New Yorkers felled by bullets that—regardless of any dispute over whether proper procedures were followed or if justification for deadly force existed—everyone concerned would wish to see stuffed back into the barrels of the weapons that fired them.

Would that it could be so. Would that there might be some cosmic do-over for Khiel Coppin, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury, Ousmane Zongo, Patrick Dorismond, Amadou Diallo, and a score of others whose names are already fading in memory.

The funeral of Khiel Coppin, an unarmed 18-year-old killed by police.
photo: Jake Price
The funeral of Khiel Coppin, an unarmed 18-year-old killed by police.

Surely none of the officers that pulled their triggers as Coppin stood before them in the darkness on the evening of November 12 would have done so had they known the weapon he appeared to brandish was nothing more than a hairbrush.

Likewise, none of the shooters of Sean Bell on the eve of his wedding a year ago would have opened fire if they'd known he and his boisterous friends were unarmed; the cop who shot Timothy Stansbury on a Brooklyn rooftop, just two blocks from where Coppin was slain, would have holstered his weapon rather than killing a 19-year-old who held nothing more lethal than a handful of CDs.

What we are left with then are a series of tragedies, mistakes that seem to have a way of getting made over and over again: mistakes where the victims tend to be black, where the shooters are officers paid to serve and protect, and where the black community is left to do its grieving mostly alone, wondering if this time justice might be done.

Those were the questions that tore at those who walked through a cold drizzle to the Nazarene Congregational United Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where funeral services were held for Coppin on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. They took seats in a warm church with a red carpet and arched, stained-glass windows that reach from floor to ceiling. A choir dressed in black robes sat in a single line against the front wall, facing the congregation. Coppin's family—including his mother, Denise; his father, Walter; his stepfather, Reginald; and his eight siblings—sat in the front row.

Most of the mourners were middle-aged, and, aside from a handful of white reporters there to report on the event, all were African-Americans. A half-dozen local elected officials came to pay their respects, as did Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who came as a representative of Mayor Bloomberg and who happens to be black as well. Not a single white elected official felt the need to be present. The city's Public Advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, whose own daughter-in-law died a few weeks ago in police custody in Phoenix amid circumstances Gotbaum rightly questioned, was among those absent.

Reverend Conrad B. Tillard Sr., the church's pastor, opened by reading the 23rd Psalm. He added his own testament as well: "We have a mandate from the Lord Jesus to fight for justice for those who hear no justice." There is the need as well, he continued, for the community to address the problem of mental illness—the affliction that led to Coppin's death.

"This scene is just too familiar," said City Councilman Al Vann when he addressed the congregation. Vann, 73, has represented Bed-Stuy in the City Council and state assembly for 30 years, and he gestured at the gun-blue casket topped with white carnations that held Coppin's slim 18-year-old body. "The first 10 to 15 times I saw this, I said, 'This will be the last time,' " he said.

"The theory behind blind justice is that justice doesn't take into account if the victim is white or black, rich or poor," continued Vann as several in the pews and the balcony above chimed in with shouts of assent. "But I have yet to see justice done on the occasion where a young black man is the victim. I don't know about justice being blind. I think justice peeks. That blindfold has holes in it."

Shortly after the shooting, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that the decision to use deadly force against Coppin had been imposed on the officers after the young man had loudly insisted he had a gun. That was a threat that had to be taken seriously, police officials said, regardless of the insistence by Coppin's mother—who had originally called 911 for help in getting her much-agitated son under control—that he was unarmed. And when Coppin crawled out an apartment window onto Gates Avenue and pulled a dark object from beneath his shirt, cops on the street had a split second to decide his intentions.

There was little reason to think these particular police trigger-happy. Records later showed that none of the five officers who fired their guns that night had ever shot at a human being before. The only cops among them to have previously used their firearms in self-defense had shot at pit bulls that were attacking them.

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