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.

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.

But the nagging matter that wouldn't go away as speakers addressed the funeral service last week was why the police department had been unable to muster its much-vaunted negotiating talent that night. "Why is there such deliberate caution in some neighborhoods, yet such recklessness in our community?" asked Al Sharpton in his eulogy.

Taharka Robinson, 38, a political activist whose mother, Annette, is a state assemblywoman, spoke as well. He ticked off a list of names from that still-growing roster of unarmed victims killed in police confrontations. His list began with the name of Randolph Evans. Robinson would have been only seven years old when Evans, who was just 15 at the time, was killed in 1976. But all these years later, Evans's story lives in memory, not only because of the rank injustice of his death, but because of the stunning turn that criminal justice took after the policeman who shot him was charged with homicide.

Evans had been standing outside his apartment house in East New York when police officer Robert Torsney headed into the complex to investigate a complaint of an armed man on the premises. As the officer was leaving, Evans began to speak to him. Instead of answering, Torsney inexplicably pulled his revolver and fired, killing the 15-year-old with a single point-blank shot to the head. The officer then got back into his car and drove to the 75th Precinct.

Torsney's initial claim was that he had seen Evans reach for a gun. But no gun was found, and the cop was soon indicted, charged with second-degree murder. That move alone was hailed by the black community as an immense step toward justice. But those hopes soon dissipated. At trial, Torsney's attorney pleaded his client not guilty by mental incapacity; the particular ailment, the attorney said, was something called "temporary psycho- motor epilepsy." The claim to the court was that while Torsney had never suffered an episode of the illness before, he had suddenly been struck with it that evening, resulting in his senseless assassination of the innocent teenager who had stood before him.

The jury somehow agreed with this preposterous scenario. Torsney was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The presentation by Torsney's attorney, Edward Rappaport, was hailed as brilliant, and, a few years later, the lawyer was himself elected to sit on Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

The story has stuck with every New Yorker who paid attention to such things back then. And hearing Taharka Robinson invoke Evans's name so many years later at the funeral of another teenager shot dead in questionable circumstances brought another reminder as the services ended and most people headed off to mark the approaching holiday. It had been Thanksgiving Day when Torsney fired his fatal round, another bullet that could never be taken back.

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