What Sean Bell's Legacy Needs To Be

A permanent, independent prosecutor to handle police crimes

Michael Stewart would have celebrated his 50th birthday this year, and you can only wonder what marvelous things he might be doing were he still around. He was 25 years old in 1983, a handsome, free-spirited African-American artist and model with lanky limbs and a tangle of dark curls who lived with his parents, a retired teacher and a Transit Authority maintenance worker, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

According to police, Stewart was spraying graffiti inside the subway station at 14th Street and First Avenue at 2:30 a.m. on September 15 that year when they objected. This should not have merited a death sentence. But for reasons never explained, Stewart wound up bloodied and battered, his wrists bound to his ankles, the way only hogs are supposed to be tied. There were 11 cops present for his arrest, so it was also unclear why such severe restraint was necessary. There were discrepancies as well as to whether Stewart was even breathing when the cops drove him to Bellevue Hospital; the arresting officer insisted he was fine, but a report later found that this was most certainly a lie, since a nurse who was the first to see him said he had already turned blue from lack of air.

Stewart lapsed into a coma and was dead 13 days later. Six white transit officers were brought to trial. All six were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Sean Bell's parents, William and Valerie, exit the courthouse.
Louis Lanzano/AP Wideworld
Sean Bell's parents, William and Valerie, exit the courthouse.

That was long ago, a different victim in a different borough in a different time. But it still has everything to do with the not-guilty verdict in Queens that outraged so many people last week around the city.

To get to the issues surrounding the death by police bullets of Sean Bell on the morning of his wedding day, you first have to joust with all the ghosts that have preceded him: that of Stewart, of Arthur Miller, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Timothy Stansbury, Khiel Coppin, and a score of others.

The fact that those who mistakenly die at the hands of the police are most often black and Hispanic remains the most obscene tax levied on this city's communities of color. It is an old injustice, but one for which the powers-that-be still lack any credible answers.

In this latest episode, a dubious mission—using heavily armed police to detect prostitution at a raucous strip club—became a fatal disaster.

Yet the judge's ruling would have us somehow accept that no one is at fault: that 50 unreturned bullets can be fired at three unarmed men, and no criminal penalties are warranted; that this case of unnecessary force somehow rests on the credibility of victims who still carry their own bullet wounds; that the police officers were somehow more rightfully fearful for their lives than Bell and his friends were for their own.

"Is this 1955 Alabama?" asked William Bell, the slain victim's father, after the verdict. "Somebody has to answer that for me."

It's not, but no one could be blamed for wondering.

Not that there weren't important differences between this one and prior incidents: For one thing, two of the cops who fired shots were black; one of them even lives in Bushwick. Wasn't that one of the old rallying cries? That cops should be recruited from the communities they are charged with protecting, not imported from white suburbs?

For another, unlike the Diallo case, in which the acquittals were won in Albany, the police lawyers did not succeed in hijacking this one to an out-of-town court. It was tried just a couple of miles from where Bell died, close enough for neighbors and friends to keep an eye on things and register their discontent.

But the questions that arise in the wake of this acquittal are the same that were asked in angry frustration after the Diallo case, the Stewart case, and all the others where perpetrators were found to have committed no wrong. And we will never escape the cycle of suspicion and recrimination until some new and believable system of law enforcement for these cases is created and applied.

On Sunday afternoon, Norman Siegel, the city's civil-liberties conscience, and Eric Adams, a former detective turned politician, came to One Police Plaza in lower Manhattan to offer a reasonable solution to the justice system's endlessly inept response to these recurring tragedies.

"The verdict by Justice Arthur Cooperman in the Sean Bell case confirms that it is difficult, almost impossible, to prosecute on-duty police officers in misconduct cases," said Siegel, "especially those involving homicide allegations. The verdict underscores the need for systemic change."

The remedy should be clear, he said: "We need to create a statewide, permanent special prosecutor for police corruption and brutality."

The current method of relying on locally elected prosecutors "ignores the built-in conflict of interest that is the result of routine working relationships between the district attorneys' offices and the police," he said. Moreover, D.A.'s "often lack the necessary expertise and experience in handling cases of this magnitude."

An independent prosecutor would be free of those conflicts and able to establish "a proven record of accomplishment," said Siegel, "one that engendered confidence to the community and the law-enforcement world, and which would be able to publicly explain why, in certain instances, the correct legal result was no indictment or no conviction."

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