Guns Gone Wild
In the pre-dawn hours of November 25, outside the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica, Queens, Detective Mike Oliver squeezed the trigger of his police-issue 9mm pistol in the line of duty for the first time in his 12 years on the force. He squeezed again and again and again until he had fired all 16 shots in the weapon. Then he pushed the extractor button with his thumb, popping out the empty clip, and with his left hand he slapped a 15-round clip up through the hollow handle. He fired and fired until the gun was emptied again31 shots in 10 to 15 seconds, tops. And he wasn't the only cop firing.
When a supervisor later asked Oliver about the shooting, Oliver was unsure whether he had fired any shots at all, a high-ranking police source tells the Voice. Even making allowances for the extreme adrenaline rush, fear, and confusion that reign at any shooting, police investigators looked askance at Oliver when he said that. Any cop can understand not recalling firing one or two bullets, but two full clips? In the end, the investigators didn't push it, chalking up Oliver's curious statement to shock, the police source said. They jotted down what he said and included his statement in a preliminary report that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown says "raises as many questions as it answers."
When the bullets finally stopped flying a week ago Saturday, Sean Bell, a 23-year-old who had been celebrating his last hours of bachelorhood, was dead, and two of his pals were severely shot up inside Bell's Nissan Altima. The grim totals: Five cops, 50 rounds, one dead, two injured, zero guns found on Bell and the other "suspects."
The semiautomatic frenzy produced what is for New Yorkers a semiautomatic reaction: flashbacks to a similar barrage of police bullets from another special task force unit that killed Amadou Diallo in 1999. As officials sort through the chaotic events, there are other issues at play, such as a lack of training, the possibility of racial profiling, and the allegation of overaggressive policing. But it's the number 50 that sticks in people's craws. That's usually a sports milestone or a significant birthday, not the number of shots cops pump into a car containing unarmed men. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the NYPD's biggest cheerleader, described the hail of bullets as "unacceptable" and "inexplicable."
"The main thing is the 50 shots," Jonathan Maitre, student government president at Medgar Evers College, told a group of student protesters at a rally outside the Brooklyn school last week. There and elsewhere in the city, a new chant has gone up among protesters: "50 . . . shots! 50 . . . shots!"
As it turns out, that's not the only curious number. The Bell shooting comes at a time when police officers are firing more bullets per shooting than they have in recent years. Those and other numbers add more doubt concerning city officials' arguments that the city really is a less violent placeeven without the Bell shooting.
The harsh reality: In 2005, New York City police officers fired 616 bullets, about 30 percent more than the 477 annual average from 1999 to 2004. In just one incident last year, police fired 77 shots before winging a gunman who was returning fire outside the Taft Houses in East Harlem. Including the Bell incident, NYPD cops have fired 483 shots this year, putting them on pace for fewer than last year but still about 12 percent more than the 477 average.
But here's the oddest number of all: In New York City between 1999 and 2005, major crime has plummeted by some 60,000 complaints, about 48 percent. Also, the number of police-involved shooting incidents has actually been lower, by about eight per year, during that time period.
In other words, police have been getting into fewer shootouts but firing more once it's on.
And forget about the gang that couldn't shoot straight. In 2005 NYPD cops were less accurate than the bad guys shooting back at them, according to a confidential report obtained by the Voice.
Police officials shrug off the increase in shots fired as an aberration; they maintain that the NYPD remains one of the most disciplined and restrained police departments in the country when it comes to gun use. For a comparison, they point to the distant past, like 1972, when NYPD cops fired an astounding 2,510 times, using slower-to-reload six-shot revolvers instead of today's 16-round semiautomatics.
The deadly shooting outside the Kalua Cabaret and all of its resulting furor find their roots in a summer's-night fling by a couple of well-off New Jersey teens getting drunk in a club in Chelsea.
After a night of partying last July, 18-year-old Jennifer Moore found herself drunk and stranded when her friend, whose car was towed, passed out at the city's impound lot and had to be taken to a hospital by ambulance. As Moore stumbled down the West Side Highway on the morning of July 25, she was abducted by an ex-con and small-time pimp, who took her to a New Jersey hotel and raped and strangled her.
That high-profile killing, coming on the heels of 24-year-old Imette St. Guillen's being murdered allegedly by a Soho bar bouncer, prompted the NYPD to create the Club Enforcement Task Force. Like so much in policing, the idea was recycled from past NYPD battle plans, most notably the department's Social Club Task Force.
Paul Browne, the NYPD's commissioner of public information, says that after Club Enforcement cops stabilized the situation in Manhattan's clubs, they started to branch out to problem places in the outer boroughs.
Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, calls such initiatives "overpolicing." "What are these cops doing in a strip bar in Jamaica at four in the morning listening to trash talk?" O'Donnell says. "You've got alcohol and drugs being used and then you have cops bringing firearms and deadly force into the picture. So you have trouble. . . . We've got to stop overpolicing everything."
Browne says the Kalua Cabaret, at 143-08 94th Avenue, was well worth police attention because of a "chronic history of narcotics, prostitution, and weapons complaints there." The strip joint had been closed in July 2005 for prostitution and underage drinking. Since it reopened in October 2005, police have been called to the club 26 times for 911 emergencies and have made eight arrests for prostitution, drugs, or weapons. The most recent arrests, for drugs and prostitution, came only four days before the Bell shooting. One more documented violation and the club would face another city-forced closure.
Around 12:40 a.m. on November 26, two undercover officers, whose names police have not released, entered Kalua. They left their guns and badges in their car outside because bouncers frisked all entering patrons and they didn't want their cover blown.
The officers milled about the club, nursing two beers each while trying to get in on drug or prostitution deals, according to NYPD officials. Later, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said two beers is permissible under NYPD policy. Such moderate drinking allows undercovers to blend in. Although officials didn't administer Breathalyzers, a supervisor on the scene determined that the officers were fit for duty, Kelly said. A retired detective who did undercover work and who spoke to the Voice on the condition of anonymity says blending in often means drinking more than the two drinks allowed.
Around 3 a.m., one of the undercovers, who had recently been transferred to the Club Enforcement unit after saying he was tired of making undercover drug buys in Brooklyn, saw a man he thought was a bouncer approach one of the club's dancers. She had apparently been arguing with some customers earlier that night. The bouncer patted his waistband and told the dancer not to worry, because he had her back. The undercover took it as a sign that the man had a gun. The officer left the club; called his lieutenant, Jerry Napoli, on his cell phone; and told him there may be trouble. The undercover remained outside, and as the club closed, the man he suspected of having the gun left, according to police sources.
Around 4 a.m., Sean Bell, Joseph Guzman, and Trent Benefield filed out of the club with other patrons. The undercover watched as Bell, his friends, and about five others argued with and, according to police spokesman Paul Browne, threatened a man who was standing by a black SUV in front of the club.
A witness later told police that he heard Bell say, "Let's fuck him up." According to police officials, the undercover heard Guzman chime in, "Yo, get my gun, get my gun." The men then split into two groups, with Bell's group heading east on 94th Avenue before walking onto Liverpool Avenue, where Bell's Nissan Altima was parked.
As he trailed Bell, the undercover called his lieutenant again, according to officials, and told him, "It's getting hot" and "I think there's a gun." The lieutenant, in an unmarked van, was being followed by another minivan and a Toyota Camry, each occupied by two officers. All the cops were in street clothes.
After Bell and the others climbed into the Altima, the undercover cop who was trailing them crossed the street and confronted them, gun out and his leg up on the car's bumper. At this point, it's not known why he did that. Commissioner Kelly would later admit that the undercover's actions were "unusual" and not the way police ideally map out such takedowns.
Bernard Cole, a former NYPD detective who worked undercover, was more critical of that tactic. "It's Policing 101 when you're in plain clothes," Cole says. None of the men was brandishing a gun, and none of them was menacing anyone, he says, "so the threat wasn't imminent. The cops should've surveilled the guy, called in a radio car, and let the uniforms take care of it." But to call in the uniformed cops, Cole notes, would have meant turning over a gun collar, a cherished arrest for NYPD cops.
What followed next was a chain reaction of mistakes for the plainclothes Club Enforcement cops. Benefield has told police he didn't hear the undercover identify himself as a cop and that he and his two friends thought the man was trying to rob them. As one of the unmarked police vans tried to pin the Altima in its parking space, Bell jerked the car forward, knocking aside the undercover and striking the van. Bell threw the Altima into reverse, driving up on a sidewalk and crashing into the security gate of a nearby store. Then he started forward and again crashed into the van.
"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 doto 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.
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 torsoand 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.
Kelly originally opposed switching from the standard six-shot Smith & Wesson revolver that had been used since former police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt standardized the guns New York City cops carried. But when Kelly took over as commissioner in 1992, most other major police departments were using the semiautomatics. He told Timoney and Michael Julian, then an inspector in charge of the NYPD's Office of Management Analysis and Planning, to study the adoption of the 9mm handguns. Julian reported back that, based on the number of cops fatally shot, officers' fears that they were in increasing danger from criminals armed with more powerful weapons were more psychological than real.
Kelly put off making the move to the semiautomatic weapons despite mounting pressure. By then, William Bratton, as chief of the transit police, which had not yet merged with the NYPD, had authorized his officers to carry 9mm pistols, and the NYPD officers and their unions were clamoring for them. Kelly's hand was forced when Governor Mario Cuomo, during an election year, came up with $11 million to fund purchase of the guns. In 1993, Kelly authorized cops to carry 9mm handguns, but not before ordering two important modifications. The clips were restricted to 10 bullets, and the amount of force required to pull the triggers was increased to almost double the standard amount, to avoid accidental discharge if the guns were dropped.
In 1994, when Bratton took over as NYPD commissioner, he upped the number of shots in the clip to 15cops carry a 16th in the chamber. Inevitably the new weapons led to some eye-popping numbers of shots fired. In December 1994, police fired what is believed to be an all-time departmental high of 256 shots during a roving gun battle with a man who had murdered his landlord and then killed the landlord's wife inside a Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard before attempting to carjack another man. As police tried to stop the killer, the man the assailant had shot during the carjacking was also hit by a stray police bullet that the medical examiner later determined was the kill shot.
For the most part, however, the weapons' increased ammunition capacity hasn't resulted in an increase in police overfiring or the wounding of innocent bystanders, according to NYPD figures. The number of police bullets fired spiked from an average of about 1,100 a year in the last five years the NYPD predominantly used revolvers to 1,728 in 1995, the year after they went to semiautomatics. But by 1999, the number of bullets fired had decreased to 621 and in 2004 fell to a modern low of 352 before shooting up by 75 percent last year.
O'Donnell, the John Jay professor, says he thinks the recent increase in shootings is just an aberration. But Noel Leader, an NYPD sergeant who heads up the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, argues that the current police administration's "overaggressive tone" causes incidents like the Bell shooting. As far as Leader is concerned, it's a stats game. "Commissioner Kelly is one of the worst police commissioners in terms of emphasizing getting numbers," says Leader. " 'Go out there and make arrests; we want numbers even though crime is down.' That aggressive atmosphere goes throughout policingaggressive summonses, aggressive 250s [random stops], aggressive arrests."
Leader says that during each tour, officers are expected to write two "C-summonses," tickets for minor offenses like being in the park after dark or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. The target of this numbers gathering, says Leader, has been the poorer black and Hispanic neighborhoods. "Would they have done this," he says, "if they stopped a car outside Gramercy Park and there were four white people in the car? I don't think so."
Another theory (one the police brass have in the past refuted) holds that the introduction in 1994 of CompStat, computer tracking of crimes that holds precinct commanders responsible for any increases, has caused supervisors to fudge the crime statistics to maintain the appearance of crime reduction. In recent years, union officials for both the sergeants and rank and file have publicly said as much, though neither has provided documented proof or put its cops up to talk about it on the record. Still, it's hard to imagine how the number of reported complaints went down by 5.1 percent in 2005 when the number of police "radio runs" went up from 4.5 million to 4.6 million.
Using the city's own numbers, an argument could be made for reintroducing the handgun modifications Kelly imposed in 1993, and not only to avoid another 50-shot controversy. The NYPD has claimed 15 straight years of crime reduction, and the number of cops being killed and shot at are substantially lower than at any time in modern policing. It wouldn't be the first time such a proposal was made.
As recently as February 1999, two weeks after Diallo was killed, Kelly (then in the private sector) opined in The New York Times that maybe it was time to dial down the NYPD-issue Glock 9mm handguns, limiting the clips to 10 rounds, as he had done in his first stint as police commissioner. Kelly wrote that "the semi-automatic's capacity, and the potential for overshooting, still concern me."
But in 2006, in his fifth year of his second stint as police commissioner and with rumored mayoral aspirations, Kelly is now married to the Glock and other NYPD- issued 9mm pistols. (Imagine the outcry from the police officers should a cop with a modified 10-shot gun be killed by someone with the standard 15-shot Glock.)
Asked whether Kelly will try to modify the NYPD's 9mm pistols, spokesman Paul Browne says he won't. Browne tells the Voice via e-mail that semiautomatics are now the "national standard" and "with no emergence of chronic overshooting or other problems associated with the 9mm," it will continue to be the NYPD's weapon of choice.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.