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No, The Cops Didn’t Murder Sean Bell By: Heather Mac Donald
City Journal | Tuesday, December 05, 2006


New York’s anti-cop forces have roared back to life thanks to a fatal police shooting of an unarmed man a week ago. The press is once again fawning over Al Sharpton, Herbert Daughtry, Charles Barron, and sundry other hate-mongers in and out of city government as they accuse the police of widespread mistreatment of blacks and issue barely veiled threats of riots if they do not get “justice.”

The allegation that last weekend’s shooting was racially motivated is preposterous. A group of undercover officers working in a gun- and drug-plagued strip joint in Queens had good reason to believe that a party leaving the club was armed and about to shoot an adversary. When one of the undercovers identified himself as an officer, the car holding the party twice tried to run him down. The officer started firing while yelling to the car’s occupants: “Let me see your hands.” His colleagues, believing they were under attack, fired as well, eventually shooting off 50 rounds and killing the driver, Sean Bell. No gun was found in the car, but witnesses and video footage confirm that a fourth man in the party fled the scene once the altercation began. Bell and the other men with him all had been arrested for illegal possession of guns in the past; one of Bell’s companions that night, Joseph Guzman, had spent considerable time in prison, including for an armed robbery in which he shot at his victim.

Nothing in these facts suggests that racial animus lay behind the incident. (Though this detail should be irrelevant, the undercover team was racially mixed, and the officer who fired the first shot was black.) But even more preposterous than the assertion of such animus is the claim by New York’s self-appointed minority advocates that the well-being of the minority community is what motivates them. If it were, here are seven things that you would have heard them say years ago:

1. “Stop the killing!” Since 1993, 11,353 people have been murdered in New York City. The large majority of victims and perpetrators have been black. Not a single one of those black-on-black killings has prompted protest or demonstrations from the city’s black advocates. Sharpton, Barron, et al. are happy to let thousands of black victims get mowed down by thugs without so much as a whispered call for “peace” or “justice”; it’s only when a police officer, trying to protect the public, makes a good faith mistake in a moment of intense pressure that they rise as vindicators of black life. (As for caring about slain police officers, forget about it. Sixteen cops—including several black policemen—have been killed since 1999, not one of whom elicited a public demonstration of condolence from the race hustlers.)

If the city’s black advocates paid even a tiny fraction of the attention they pay to shootings by criminals as they pay to shootings by police, they could change the face of the city. If demonstrators gathered outside the jail cell of every rapist and teen stick-up thug, cameras in tow, to shame them for their attacks on law-abiding minority residents, they could deglamorize the gangsta life. Think you’ll find Sharpton or Barron patrolling with the police in dark housing project stairways, trying to protect residents from predators? Not a chance. Among the crimes committed in minority communities since last week’s police shooting of Sean Bell there has been a 26-year-old man fatally shot in the Bronx; another man hit by stray bullets; a sandwich shop in Brownsville robbed by thugs who fired a gun; and three elderly men robbed at knifepoint by a parolee in Queens. Those minority victims who survived will have to rely on the police and the courts, not the race “advocates,” for vindication.

2. “Police killings of innocent civilians—each one of them a horror—are nonetheless rare.” The instances of an officer shooting an innocent, unarmed victim are so unusual that they can be counted on one’s fingers. Last year, of the nine suspects fatally shot by the police, two had just fired at a police officer, three were getting ready to fire, two had tried to stab an officer, and two were physically attacking an officer. Far more frequent are the times when the NYPD refrains from using force though clearly authorized to do so. So far this year, officers have been fired upon four times, without returning fire. In 2005, there were five such incidents. And the NYPD apprehended 3,428 armed felons this year, 15 percent more than last year. Each arrest of a gun-toting thug involves the potential for the use of deadly force, yet is almost always carried out peacefully.

The Department has dramatically driven down the rate of all police shootings—justified and not—over the decades (in 1973, there were 1.82 fatal police shootings per 1,000 officers; in 2005, there were 0.25 such shootings per 1,000 officers, bringing the absolute number of police shootings down from 54 in 1973 to nine in 2005). The NYPD’s per capita rate of shootings is lower than many big city departments.

Yet New York Times columnist Bob Herbert charges the police with an unbroken pattern of “blowing away innocent individuals with impunity.” The “community,” he wrote on November 30, “which is sick of these killings, is simmering,” What are “these killings,” about which the “community” is simmering? Herbert reaches back over three decades and adduces five prior to the recent shooting of Sean Bell. Each was a disaster that provoked the NYPD to scrutinize its tactics. But the number of innocent bystanders killed by criminal thugs in New York dwarfs the number of innocents killed by the police. Sharpton recently said that the minority community has to fear police officers as much as robbers. This is a groundless charge. What is true is that stoking the myth that the police are a threat to blacks harms the minority community by inflaming anti-cop sentiment and retarding community cooperation in the fight against crime in inner-city neighborhoods.

3. “The police work every day to save lives.” If New York City murders had remained at their early 1990s highs, instead of dropping from 1,927 killings in 1993 to 540 in 2005, 13,698 more people—most of them black and Hispanic—would have been dead by last year. They are alive today thanks to the relentless efforts of the NYPD to bring the same level of safety to poor minority neighborhoods as to Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side.

The undercover officers who killed Sean Bell over the weekend were working the strip club in Queens where the incident occurred at 4 AM because of its record of illegal guns and drug sales. Their intentions that night were to protect the residents of Jamaica and the occupants of the club from violence; that they ended up killing an unarmed man is undoubtedly a nightmare for them almost as horrific as it is for the victim’s family.

It may turn out that the officers failed to follow departmental procedures during the incident (though the NYPD’s rule against firing at cars that are trying to run an officer over seems highly unrealistic). If so, the city will hold them accountable. The criminal justice system may even find them criminally liable. But there is absolutely no evidence that racial hatred lay behind either the officers’ presence at the club or their behavior once there—contrary to the outrageous slander of New York City Councilman Al Vann, who called the shooting of Bell and other police shootings the product of “a discriminatory mind, a prejudiced mind,” adding, “We have to admit [that] the problem is . . . institutional racism.”

A New York Times reporter, Cara Buckley, coyly echoed this inflammatory charge on Wednesday. In referring to the undercover officer who fired the first shots at the car, she says: “The officer’s fear, if that was what motivated him, was unfounded” (emphasis added). We will leave aside the spurious judgment that just because no gun was ultimately found on the car’s occupants, the officer’s fear of a gun was “unfounded.” The officer, after all, had heard Sean Bell say, “Let’s fuck him up,” and Bell’s friend, Joseph Guzman, respond, “Yo, get my gun.” That officer was then the target of an oncoming vehicle driven by Bell. The most offensive part of Buckley’s statement, though, is her suggestion that the officer might have been motivated by something other than fear—and what else could that be but racism or some kind of violent animus?

The New York Times, Al Vann, and other City Council hotheads such as Helen Foster notwithstanding, someone who believes that black lives are worth less than white lives is not going to put his own life at risk working in dangerous environments trying to get guns away from criminals.

4. “If you witnessed a crime, help the authorities solve it.” The police could probably lock away just about every dangerous thug roaming the streets if they got more cooperation from witnesses and people with knowledge of the crime. Instead, they often encounter a wall of hostile silence in minority communities. Bystanders sometimes deliberately block officers chasing a criminal. The stigma against helping the police—referred to derogatorily as “snitching”—is pervasive. “If you’re a snitch, people want to kill you,” a teen robber in a Brooklyn crime rehabilitation program that I observed this spring explained. Helping the police is seen as helping the enemy, defined in racial terms. Even black officers are part of the hated white establishment. “Black cops, I disrespect them. They sucking the white man,” asserted another juvenile delinquent in the Crown Heights rehab program.

Many law-abiding residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods buck this self-defeating social norm. They attend police-community council meetings in their local precinct month after month, learning about police initiatives, and they report anonymously on drug deals and vice hot spots. They are the eyes and ears of the department, and without their help, the NYPD might not have achieved the unmatched crime drop of the last decade. It would be astounding if any of the anti-police activists leading protests about the Sean Bell shooting had ever attended a precinct community meeting or offered to help the police solve crimes. Presumably, they have more important things to do than work to improve the quality of life in minority neighborhoods. Let the police take care of that. But even if the anti-cop activists can’t be bothered to give a few hours a month to fight crime, they could at least use their bully pulpit to call on others to share what they know about criminals and to help get violent offenders off the street before they injure more people and property. Instead, their opportunistic cop-bashing only increases the hatred of the police and the stigma against cooperating with them. As a result, more lives will be taken by cop-eluding barbarians.

5. “The NYPD and the criminal justice system investigate every police shooting with profound seriousness; they will not rest until the facts are uncovered and justice done.” The premise of the current grandstanding by “minority advocates” is that the authorities would shrug off the recent shooting without heat from the street. One thinks of the rooster in the fable, who believes that his crowing raises the sun. “Business will not go on as usual until we get justice for Sean Bell,” Sharpton said on Wednesday. It is not Sharpton and his cronies who are getting justice for Bell, however. The street agitators could all go home (sometimes, as in the case of Sharpton, to suburbia) and wait quietly for a resolution, and the system would proceed just as diligently to assign fault if fault was present and to hold any wrongdoers accountable.

Other publicity-hungry politicians are just as desperate to add their voices to the post-shooting hue and cry. New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement on Wednesday: “It is of the utmost importance that the investigating authorities, led by the Queens district attorney, conduct an aggressive, impartial investigation to ferret out the facts.” What do they think would have happened without this self-righteous piece of boilerplate? That the “investigating authorities” would have conducted a biased, half-hearted investigation?

Every time the anti-police lobby issues superfluous demands for a “full investigation” and threats of violence if “justice” is not done, they send the destructive message that the police are indifferent to the loss of life. Or worse: “I’m not asking my people to do anything passive anymore,” said City Councilman Charles Barron. “Don’t ask us to ask our people to be peaceful while they are being murdered. We’re not the only ones that can bleed.”

6. “Police officers make mistakes; tragically, those mistakes are sometimes deadly.” Perhaps Al Sharpton, Charles Barron, and Jesse Jackson have never made an error of judgment, except for Tawana Brawley and such like. Perhaps, too—though this is truly unlikely—they have had to confront the possibility that they are facing someone about to shoot them and in a split-second to decide whether to shoot first. Perhaps in such circumstances, they would never ever make the wrong decision. If so, perhaps they are justified in strutting around like beings of superhuman prescience and infallibility.

But most police officers are like other human beings: they do make mistakes. And because they are carrying lethal weapons, in order to counter the illegal firepower packed by lowlifes, very occasionally those mistakes take an innocent life. The Police Department works incessantly to make sure that its officers never make a fatal error. It tries to drill into officers reflexes that will guard against wrong split-second judgments. It constantly reviews its training and official procedures to improve those reflexes. But out in the field, even the best training can prove inadequate to the pressure and confusion of a possibly deadly encounter.

This is not to say that the public and elected officials should automatically excuse every police shooting—which they are obviously far from doing. But to presume that every mistaken shooting represents a system-wide failure is inaccurate and unrealistic. The New York Times darkly commands: “[T]he Police Department must . . . confront the fact that a disaster that everyone swore to prevent seven years ago has repeated itself in Queens.” But because cops are humans and therefore fallible, it is impossible to prevent every wrongful shooting—without emasculating the police entirely. The New York Times has itself made a few mistakes over the last seven years; perhaps it, too, needs to confront its persistent fallibility.

7. “The police concentrate their efforts in minority communities because that is where the crime is.” Race hustlers accuse the police of “racially profiling” and targeting minorities for unjustified police action. After showing up in New York for his time in the Sean Bell spotlight, Jesse Jackson announced: “Our criminal-justice system has broken down for black Americans and young black males. We’ve marched and marched, bled too profusely, and died too young. We must draw a line in the sand and fight back.”

Memo to Jackson: The police have a disproportionate number of interactions with blacks because blacks are committing a disproportionate number of crimes. That fact comes from the testimony of the victims of those crimes, themselves largely black, not from the police. In New York City, blacks committed 62 percent of all murders, rapes, robberies, and assaults from 1998 to 2000, according to victim and witness identification, even though they make up only 25 percent of the city’s population. Whites committed 8 percent of those crimes over that period, though they are 28 percent of New York residents. These proportions have been stable for years and remain so today. It’s not the “criminal-justice system” that has broken down for young black males; it’s families and other sources of cultural support. Changing the subject and blaming the police just perpetuates the problem.

The furor over the Sean Bell shooting shows no sign of abating; if anything, the specious racial rhetoric is becoming more ugly and dangerous. To the extent that the exploitation of this tragic event makes the police think twice about engaging with possible criminals or turn a blind eye to crime in the ghetto (as was once the case), the most direct victims will be the hundreds of thousands of innocent, upstanding minority New Yorkers.

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Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, coauthored with Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga, is The Immigration Solution.


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