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Sean Bell

Sean Bell

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Protesters and police, after the Sean Bell verdict. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last Friday, a judge acquitted three New York City police officers of all charges in the shooting death of Sean Bell. In 2006, Gescard Isnora, Marc Cooper, and Michael Oliver fired 50 bullets at Bell and his friends, outside a club in Queens.

After the verdict, community leaders and political activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, called for protests and acts of civil disobedience. "We strategically know how to stop the city so people stand still and realize that you do not have the right to shoot down unarmed, innocent citizens with no probable cause," Sharpton said. "This city is going to deal with the blood of Sean Bell."

On Sunday, The New York Times published "The Fear Behind the Badge," by Kyle Murphy, a former police officer, now a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "The police are always second-guessed when they use deadly physical force," he wrote.

We'll talk with several people, including Murphy, about the relationship between citizens and police officers. Who trusts whom? What is your reaction to the Sean Bell verdict? What could cops do to earn more trust in the communities in which they serve? If you live outside of New York City, have you talked about the Sean Bell case with your friends, coworkers, and loved ones?



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The police officer may have fear but they are trained to respond. But when a cop shots 50 times, then there is something seriously wrong with that. An officer in this case reloaded his gun. Therefore, it was ample time to assess the situation but he then emptied his gun a second time.

Sent by James Manning | 2:15 PM | 4-29-2008

Your guest phrased the choice to kill a suspect as "if I am wrong I will be in a lot of trouble". The balance of choice to shoot to kill may be more balanced if the thought is "If I am wrong then I have killed an innocent person".

Sent by lauren suffian | 2:16 PM | 4-29-2008

have just tuned in ...perhaps this was addressed.....however: why is it that police cannot seem to "shoot to disable" rather than "shoot to kill"? they go through extensive target practice, etc...clearly aiming at a leg or perhaps even firing at the pavement around a suspect would alter the environment that was developing....wouldn't it? thanks

Sent by m. s. pachuta | 2:20 PM | 4-29-2008

Cops all over the world have been known to protect each other even when wrong. No weapon was found on Sean Bell and friends, so no matter what is said the evidence shows that it was wrong to kill them. And 50 bullets sounds like a death squad at work, not law enforcement!

Sent by Tito Machado | 2:24 PM | 4-29-2008

So, you mean all they have to do is imply that there is a weapon? Why is it that most often the downside of poor police judgment is a black man or woman? I am so tired of hearing this... "Contagious" shooting is dangerous... cops need to be convicted more often for their crimes and poor decision-making so that greater precautions will be taken.

There is a reason why they are held in low esteem; the police force needs to be held accountable for the serious role they play in creating poor relations in the community. And this conversation needs to move beyond "fear".

Sent by kamillah | 2:25 PM | 4-29-2008

Why should police carry deadly force? There are other forms of protection. Polices should carry arms for defense. They should nvr be used as offense. Unfortunately my view of police is not unlike the movie "Clockwork Orange" where the thugs become police, giving them rein to act with impudence

Sent by Blez | 2:27 PM | 4-29-2008

My mother was a cop before she became a full-time high school teacher in California. Both professions are underfunded and undervalued. Both face more than they should have to. As a long-time liberal, I've had numerous occasions to defend cops and the necessity of a paid security force in a democratic society.

That all has changed. I'm white, female and pretty normal. After being bullied, intimidated and thrown into a squad car after being pulled over for going 12 miles over the speed limit on a remote rural highway, I will never trust cops again. There's more to this story, but cops are no longer the nice guys I knew long ago. Even my cop friends agree. Everyone I know says, "if you get pulled over, just don't say anything and take the ticket."

I can now imagine what it would be like if I was black, Hispanic, Indian or male. I believe police officers are completely out of control and need major retraining.

Sent by sari gordon | 2:31 PM | 4-29-2008

Crime has no color. You obey the law, you obey law enforcement, you must always realize the consequences of your actions when you find or get yourself in a compromising, unlawful situation. When caught or discovered, respond to the demands of those who put on a uniform and leave their homes to protect and serve my home...your home or suffer the results of your stupidity. Quit the whining! It's a no brainer. Joe Pinner Blythewood, SC

Sent by Joe Pinner | 2:31 PM | 4-29-2008

As a retired homicide investigator and state certified firearms instructor I would submit that one of the most important things for an Officer to consider in a possible armed confrontation is cover. It isn't always possible to get behind good cover, but there is usually something available (lamppost, mailbox, even a curb). Cover buys you time and allows youto assess the situation and, hopefully, control it without the use of deadly force.

Sent by Michael Conwell | 2:33 PM | 4-29-2008

I may not understand the added fear for a minority but I believe local police have become more rash & harder to deal with as if everyone is a threat or terrorist. fed attitude has rubbed off.

Sent by Ruth | 2:36 PM | 4-29-2008

the problem is fear and mistrust. and until we eliminate fear and mistrust from all human kind, there will always be incidents that are horrible. my father was an officer with the houston police dept. for over 30 years. his work was in forensics, and he trusts no one. especially not other cops. he would even wear a pistol in his boot to church. my 19 year old brother was recently arrested for criminal trespassing at his old high school in a middle class suburb because he tried to take his girlfriend lunch. white kid, white cops, and my father tried to reason with them, yet the wouldn't have listen. unfortunately we still have a mindset of guilty until proven innocent.

Sent by tiffany s. | 2:39 PM | 4-29-2008

An earlier guest said he hopes "the best and the brightest" are hired as cops. My city Fort Wayne IN had a minimum education requirement as a GED or HS diploma. Can this type of education offer the brightest?

Sent by Catherine Johnson | 2:41 PM | 4-29-2008

It IS a systemic problem. I have very little confidence in police, and am constantly on guard and fearful that if they become scared or claim fear that they can get away with shooting or killing me. I am 5'6" 220 lbs and light brown skinned- I know my appearance makes certain people scared. These cops were scared, their job was to remain level headed. I am a veteran of Iraq, bravery and courage is not shooting everything you are scared of, it is waiting until you are positive before pulling the trigger to take someones life. I am afraid of where we all are headed, because without being addressed the result of this case has not yet been measured. How scared do you think Sean and his friends felt when surrounded by scared men with guns drawn?

Sent by C-ya | 2:41 PM | 4-29-2008

Man I wanted the professor to finish his comment about why police officers are more combative in a black neighborhood because black communities have more crime and I wanted the journalist to respond.

Sent by Ms. Akilah | 2:44 PM | 4-29-2008

One guest spoke of jokes among the African American Community about not doing "anything to scare the cop". I think that is a reasonable philosophy. I have been pulled over a couple of times late at night, and I made a point of letting the officer know what I was about to do with my hands, etc. "I have to reach into the glove compartment to get that insurance card..." I viewed that as a courtesy to him that at the same time could potentially save my life. In my case, the officers seemed to appreciate it and treated me quite reasonably.

Sent by Bruce L. | 2:44 PM | 4-29-2008

To the guest who advised that we do as we were raised, and "just shut up." What about when you are polite and when you do shut up and you still get intimidated and bullied by a cop with some kind of anger problem?

Sent by sari gordon | 2:44 PM | 4-29-2008

Westword magazine(4-3-08)..." Correll and Bernadette Park, a psychologist... at Colorado University since the mid-'80s, developed a video shooting game that involved black and white male targets holding either guns or innocuous objects such as cell phones or soda cans. They told study participants -- found in college classrooms and along the 16th Street Mall -- to shoot only when the simulated characters were armed. The data revealed that players forced to make split-second decisions were prone to shoot images of unarmed black men and on average were quicker to shoot at black men holding guns than white men who were armed.

"[Participants] set a more lenient criterion to shoot for African-Americans than for whites," says Park, adding that this tendency was seen not just among Caucasian players, but also among players identifying as black or Hispanic. In 2002, she and four colleagues published a report on their research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A year later, University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald did his own study, putting college students in the role of plainclothes police officers in a computer simulation where potential targets of different races appeared from behind dumpsters as fellow officers, citizens or gun-wielding criminals. Players had greater difficulty distinguishing weapons from harmless objects when they were in the hands of blacks rather than whites, resulting in more wrongful shootings of black targets."..."The results of their study were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last July, in a paper titled "The Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot." As in the earlier CUSP study, community members displayed a greater willingness to shoot an African-American target than a white one."

Sent by lauren suffian | 2:48 PM | 4-29-2008

As concerns the "shoot to wound" concept, in the 1986 FBI shootout in Miami the suspect Michael Platt had a bullet wound which severed his right brachial artery and then entered his right chest, collapsing his right lung and resulting in a massive loss of blood into his chest. He went on to kill one FBI Agent and seriously wound another. So,"shooting to wound" doesn't always work.

Sent by Michael Conwell | 2:50 PM | 4-29-2008

I grew up overseas on military bases, and having known people in combat, I know that no matter what, you never question a soldier in combat, because you don't know how you would act.

My instinct is to apply the same thoughts to the police who are serving their communities, but I do see a big difference between Belgian police where I grew up(who are more friendly) and US police, who are more aggressive.

Should the same unequivocal support apply?

Sent by Patrick in Fort Collins | 2:52 PM | 4-29-2008

I didn't hear a single voice on NPR that called those shootings what they were: a legalized murder. NPR is now as good as Tass or Pravda ever were in the bad old days of the Soviet Union.

Sent by John Yaya | 2:55 PM | 4-29-2008

I am a 54 yo African-American male. The first time i was arrested was in my home town of Macon, Ga at the age of 17; I was protesting the non-return of a deposit by a used car dealer and was arrested for resisting arrest and disturbing the peace; luckily, the charges were dropped. While attending college in New Orleans at the age of 19 I was arrested by NOPD, had my arm broken, and was charged with resisting arrest and possession of marijuana.(This was after the Mark Essex Howard Johnson shotting of police officers) I did not have marijuana or resist arrest, yet was found guilty of both charges. I was lucky to have my record expunged, and received inactive probation rather than a jail term. While attending grad school in st. Louis i worked part-time as a security guard. While attending training classses a white St. Louis county police officer opined that it was reasonable to use extra force to s1/2ue blacks because it was sscientific fact that they had thicker skulls. (I was the only one to challenge this statement) I moved to Chicago, where I now live, and was stopped some years ago by three police cars. The officers got out of their cars, guns drawn, asked me to leave my company car, serached me, and expresed surpise that I worked for a Fortune 500 company when they found my travel itinerary; they never explained why they stopped me. I'm in agreement with former NYPO and ploce chief John Timoney who stated that police these days see their duty as protecting themselves and their partners, first and foremost. They are also enabled re the attitude that they can abuse the rights of non-whites with little or no consequence.

Sent by Macdadi | 2:55 PM | 4-29-2008

There was a caller that was taken off in the middle of his question who was addressing the fact that cops entering neighborhoods with high crime rates may not necessarily feel a threat because of any racial tension (white cops, black neighborhood) but because it is a dangerous neighborhood. Unfortunately the neighborhoods with higher violent crime rates have higher populations of minorities; which is a different issue. I'd also like to point out that two of the cops that shot at Sean Bell (r.i.p.) were of the same race.

Sent by daniel | 2:59 PM | 4-29-2008

On Sunday, my 14 yr old son and his friend were walking down the street where we live. As they were walking by the school the boys attend, a police car cut them off and the officer told them to stop. He then got out of the car and told them to get up against the wall of the business nearby. My son complied. My son's friend asked why, what had they done? The officer made him get on his knees and put his hands behind his head. He then searched them and interrogated them while they stood with their thumbs clasped behind their backs. He told them he thought that they were up to something and that they were lying to him. My son is shy and was looking down; the officer said that he knew he was up to trouble because he wouldn't look him in the eye.

When he was done harassing the boys, he told them that he had stopped them because there had been a lot of thefts in the area. And he said that when he passed by the boys, my son's friend looked as though he was hiding his face, so to him he looked suspicious. He then left, telling them to have a nice day.

The boys then came back to the house and told me what happened. I was devastated. I cannot get the image of my son with his hands up on the wall like a criminal out of my head. And it happened right across the street from his school and down the street from our house. Anyone driving by would not know the circumstance, but would only think my son was being arrested.

We live in a predominantly white, small college town. My son and his friend are both white, but they were dressed in hip-hop clothing. I believe fully that this is why they were stopped. Most people in town don't dress this way. Obviously, he wasn't stopping the college kids walking down the street in American Eagle t-shirts and flip flops.

I went to the police station to speak to the officer the next day. He was actually very nice, and we had a long discussion. He said that he understood my feelings but that, at the end of the day, he was going home. In other words, he was going to take all precautions possible. I more than understand that, but I still don't see the evidence of why he needed to take ANY precautions with these two very young men who will now be less trusting and more fearful of police officers. I believe he profiled them based on their clothing, approached them when he shouldn't have and took excessive action based on that and nothing else. We truly wish he had not.

Sent by Jennifer | 3:14 PM | 4-29-2008

I feared for my life is what get of jail card phrase that law enforcement uses to justify shooting any one they view as a threat.Like the man in a wheel chair in LA a few years back,when ask after the shooting the deputy said he feared for his life cause the men had a cane.

Sent by Pat Jones | 6:26 PM | 4-29-2008

Most cops are honest. Some are not. No matter how terrifying or tragic, anecdotal evidence does not an argument make.

There is obvious, systemic racism towards black people among police officers because there is obvious, systemic racism towards black people in our society. That said, what is the ratio of innocent people killed by police officers to police officers killed by innocent-looking people? I'd honestly like to know...

Sent by Dan | 7:41 PM | 4-29-2008

There is no argument here, that a grave injustice was done! How do we right an obvious wrong and make the people of New York trust in those that are supposed to protect and serve. Doesn't protect and serve mean to do so with people of all colors and races in mind?

Sent by J. R. | 11:44 PM | 4-29-2008

WOW!!!! I don't know if anyone got this from the guest Officer in his talk about contagious shooting. "The first officer is MORE responsible for firing the first shot" Think of it for a second... cops called to a location where they get a report about a gun. You are in the area and the cops approach you and a CAR backfires -- the first cop shoots you and ALL the other cops begin shooting (50 bullets). Verdict = NOT Guilty!!!! Amazing justice system. I'm willing to bet that raindeer get more justice...

Sent by UnbelivableJusticeSystem | 10:59 AM | 4-30-2008

I just listened to this broadcast and for a public radio program I found it pathetically one sided. It seams like a cop can justify any action, shooting, tassing or beating to" I felt threatened" and the injustice system will excuse them. I am a 50 year old Black man and an engineer and have to travel through areas in the suburbs of chicago and am constantly looked at with suspicion and pulled over and asked what is my business around here. In my teens and early twenties I was harassed, called the "n" word by Chicago cops constantly with guns drawn. My point is until cop are held accountably and loose their us vs them attitude the tension will continue more cop will begin to get hurt or killed. The reason I feel most cops are corrupt is because they are doing wrong or know of a cop doing wrong and will not report it and cover it up.

Sent by Glenn | 11:56 AM | 4-30-2008

this is the straw that broke the camels back. america's cops are largely abusive of their power. where are the background checks and psychological examinations for cops? to protect and serve? more like protected from punishment from committing social injustices just because they wear a badge, blue uniform, and have sirens on their car.

Sent by edward barrington | 2:18 PM | 4-30-2008

Y'all should try going up against the police corruption in the south where they drag 13 year old girls out of the house in their underwear and get away with it!

Sent by withheld | 12:29 AM | 5-8-2008

This is not Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell wasn't just reaching for his wallet. He or one of his friends were twice heard mentioning a gun. He got into his car, police told him to freeze. Instead of "freezing", Sean Bell drove into an unmarked police van, backed up into a stoorfront (almost running over a cop), and then sped into the van a second time. True, the police did not respond in the best way possible by choosing to take lethal action, but this is not just an open-shut case of wonton police violence.

Sent by Theo Gifford | 7:59 AM | 5-8-2008