Waiting for Answers
By BOB HERBERT
I don’t know whether the undercover cops who shot and killed Sean Bell and wounded his two friends should be criminally indicted. I wasn’t there and not enough information has emerged publicly to make a determination.
What I do know is that the investigation of this shooting in Jamaica, Queens, in which the victims were unarmed and seemed to have no intention of threatening the police, is not being conducted in a timely or effective fashion.
While the local community is seething with anger over the shooting, there are investigators scrambling like mad to find dirt to throw on the victims and locate any evidence that might, however remotely, tend to justify the shooting. But the authorities have not even asked the cops, who fired 50 bullets at the car with the three men inside, what happened. That is insane.
The office of the Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, is leading the investigation into the shooting. For procedural reasons that have to do with concerns about inadvertently conferring some degree of immunity on the officers, the D.A. has asked the Police Department not to interview the officers who shot at the car.
But the D.A.’s office has been moving in super-slow motion on the case, and no one from that office has interviewed the cops, either. Mr. Brown told me yesterday that he has a tremendous amount of additional information to gather before his office attempts to speak to the cops. “I’ve got no business talking to these cops,” he said, “until I know, or am reasonably satisfied, as to what the facts are.”
He said he hopes to speak to the officers next week, but he does not know when the matter might be presented to a grand jury. “You never go before a grand jury with a case,” said Mr. Brown, “unless you’ve got all the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted.”
A veteran investigator told me yesterday that there have been several meetings in the D.A.’s office about the Sean Bell case but that Mr. Brown and his top aides are not yet sure how to proceed.
The truth is that neither the Police Department nor the district attorneys in New York are equipped to properly investigate controversial police shootings. The prosecutors and the cops have a special, co-dependent relationship that exists around-the-clock, year-in and year-out. They work together all the time on criminal cases and other matters. They view one another as members of a close-knit criminal justice family. They watch each other’s backs.
When cops are involved in shootings that may not seem justified, there is an instinctive institutional response from other cops and prosecutors to close ranks around the accused officers. The instinct is to protect them, not to indict them.
(Tugging against those instincts in this case, as in the Amadou Diallo killing in 1999, is the sensational nature of the shooting and the tremendous public outcry and press coverage it has generated.)
The interests of the larger community can be served only when problematic police shootings are thoroughly and fairly investigated by objective, impartial and independent investigators. The police have shown over many years that they are not up to this important task, and neither are the district attorneys. This is why so few cops have been brought to justice over the years in cases of blatant police misconduct and brutality.
There is an inherent and apparently insurmountable conflict of interest at work when district attorneys investigate cases of alleged police brutality. It’s time for New York to face up to this. It’s time to establish a truly independent office — perhaps a special state prosecutor, or a permanent, fully staffed independent office at the district attorney’s level — to investigate this type of police misconduct.
The victims of unjustifiable police killings are most often (but not always) black, and in most cases they are black men. It’s time to recognize that racial stereotyping and race prejudice are still big problems in New York, and that the police often behave differently when confronting people who are black.
A special investigative office, which could look at these incidents and encounters only after the fact, is not enough. There is also a need for Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to become proactive, to acknowledge that racism is still an issue in the Police Department and to overhaul police training and address poisonous police attitudes in an effort to prevent these senseless tragedies.