Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dead is dead

If you are killed by a single gunshot, are you less dead than if you are killed by fifty bullets?

That seems to be the position of the people who are using the death of Sean Bell to incite racial strife.

If you watched the news or read the newspapers in the past week you know that three New York Police Officers were acquitted of shooting Sean Bell to death back in November 2006 as he was leaving his bachelor's party early on the morning of his wedding day. You will know that the officers shot the unarmed man fifty times, and you will have some impression that it was racially motivated. But you won't have enough information to determine if the officers were justified in their actions. For that, you have to do a lot of digging on your own.

Al Sharpton, Charles Rangel, John Conyers, and others are making an emotional appeal based on the idea that it was excessive for police to fire fifty bullets. They are ignoring the real issue -- did the police have reason to believe that their lives were threatened?

I've done a lot of training and studying of the laws, rules, and principles of the use of lethal force in self defense. One principle which runs contrary to many people's conceptions is that the requirements for legal use of deadly force are the same for any level of deadly force. There is not a higher standard for me to be justified in using an M-16 to stop an attacker than for using a bolt-action 22. If I have sufficient reason to fear for my life to justify lethal force, any means of lethal force is equivalent (although I am responsible for injury to innocent bystanders). The fact that Sean Bell was about to get married has no bearing on the case, and neither does the number of bullets fired.

For police, the standard is less stringent. Civilians generally have an obligation to retreat before using lethal force. For a police officer it is a part of their job to intervene in dangerous situations and apprehend dangerous people, so they are permitted to brandish a weapon in cases where civilians may not. The legal standard for justifiable self defense is the “reasonable man” standard: would a reasonable man in the given situation, knowing only what the individual knew, believe that his life was threatened by a determined attacker with immediate means and opportunity to kill him?

The media seem completely uninterested in the facts which are necessary to determine if the reasonable man standard was met in this case. I suppose that sensationalism and racial division sell more newspapers and furthers the political agenda of the New York Times better than an honest presentation of all the relevant facts.

Here is what happened on that November night in 2006. Sean Bell and several friends were having a bachelor’s party at a Queens strip club. The club was under surveillance by the police, who were investigating drug trading and prostitution. An undercover officer inside the club heard one of the dancers complain about a customer who was armed. At 4pm Sean and three of his friends left the club, and a fight erupted in the parking lot. It is not clear what the altercation was about, but the undercover officer radioed to her partners parked in a minivan outside that a man said “Yo, get your gun.” Then he and three others got into a silver Nissan Altima and drove away. The Altima drove half a block and then crashed into the unmarked police minivan. The car then backed up onto a sidewalk and nearly struck a police officer, but instead smashed into the front of a store. It then shot forward and again hit the police minivan. At that point, the officers opened fire, killing the driver, Sean Bell, and wounding two other passengers. Two of the three officers who fired their weapons were black.

I don’t have all of the information which was presented at the trial, so I can’t claim to second guess Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman’s decision to exonerate the officers. But it sounds to me as if the officers had reason to believe that Sean and his friends were armed and that they were using the car as a weapon. In his thirty years on the bench, Judge Cooperman has earned a reputation among both prosecutors and defense attorneys as a knowledgeable, eminently fair judge who calls cases exactly as he sees them. His lengthy decision demonstrates that he carefully and impartially weighed the evidence and testimony and came to a conclusion only after considering all of the available information. Al Sharpton, on the other hand, settled on what was, in his mind, the only just verdict the moment he learned that Sean Bell was black.

I have read the news coverage of this case from the time it happened up to the current reaction to the verdict, and I can’t say for sure if the officers were justified or if they overstepped their bounds. I have no reason to think that the shooting was racially motivated. Firing fifty shots does create a PR problem for the New York Police Department, but it does not create a legal issue, if the officers were justified in firing one shot. I don’t even have enough information to say conclusively if the police officers were responding to a deliberate attack or if the situation was caused by a combination of circumstances, bad timing, bad assumptions, and drunk driving. But I find it illuminating that the Al Sharptons of the world want to ignore the facts and play to emotions in their attempt to paint the police as eager to shoot black people, and that the media are so willing to go along for the ride.

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