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Police Acquittal Heightens Tensions in N.Y.C.

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Police Acquittal Heightens Tensions in N.Y.C.

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Police Acquittal Heightens Tensions in N.Y.C.

Police Acquittal Heightens Tensions in N.Y.C.

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Three New York City police officers charged in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell are acquitted of all charges Friday. The undercover police officers fired 50 shots at Bell and two of his friends as they left a club on the morning of what was to be Bell's wedding day. The victims were all unarmed.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Three New York City police officers have been cleared of all charges in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell. Bell was the unarmed man who was shot with a hail of 50 bullets on his wedding day. Two of his friends were injured in the shooting. The case has been an emotional one in New York, raising questions about the use of force and fire power by the NYPD.

As NPR's Robert Smith reports the not guilty verdict for the officers only heightened tensions over the incident.

ROBERT SMITH: Sean Bell's mother cried when the verdict was read. The woman Bell was to marry walked out of the courtroom. One of Bell's friends shot by the officers that night bolted out the front door of the Queens Courthouse. Trent Benefield pushed through the crowd as people cried and screamed out around him. Hundreds of spectators, mostly African-American had been gathering all morning. Now, the crowd was angry.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

Unidentified Woman: Guilty.

Unidentified Man: They're not guilty.

SMITH: For two months, New York City has been following the trial of the three undercover detectives: Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper. There were the dramatic facts of the case - how Sean Bell and his friends had left the bachelor party at the Queens nightclub, how the officers thought there was a gun, how Bell had tried to drive away but ended up hitting an officer, the 50 bullets. The three young men were black, as were two of the officers who fired the shots, but outside the courthouse Leroy Gadsen of the NAACP argued that there was no justice for people of color.

Mr. LEROY GADSDEN (President, Jamaica NAACP): In this courthouse for the past eight weeks, we have not heard one testimony. Not one testimony of any threat these young men posed to the police but anybody else. We haven't heard of any of these men having a gun, yet still we hear a verdict of not guilty.

SMITH: Inside the courtroom, the judge explained his verdict saying that the police officers' stories were more credible than the testimony of Sean Bell's friends. The three detectives left the courthouse through another door so they wouldn't encounter the crowd. Later, they spoke briefly to the media. None of them seemed to be celebrating the verdict. But only Detective Marc Cooper expressed regret.

Detective MARC COOPER (New York City Police Department): I'd like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy. I'd like to thank the Lord, my savior for today. It's just started my life back.

SMITH: The case and the acquittal brought back the memories of another New York City police shooting, an unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot in the barrage of 41 bullets in 1999. After those white officers were acquitted, the city exploded in protest, hundreds were arrested afterwards.

Today, New York City wasn't taking any chances. Police officers blanketed the courthouse and surrounding neighborhood. All week long Mayor Michael Bloomberg downplayed the chance of violence. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton, who represents the family of Sean Bell, called for any protest to be peaceful.

After the verdict, Sharpton escorted Sean Bell's fiancee out of the courthouse without talking to reporters. Later, on his syndicated radio show, he called for acts of civil disobedience this weekend.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (American Baptist Minister, Social Justice Activist): What we saw in court today was not a miscarriage of justice. Justice didn't miscarry, this was an abortion of justice. Justice was aborted.

SMITH: But justice may not be finished with the case of Sean Bell. The relatives of the victims have sued the city and the FBI and Department of Justice will review the case for any civil rights violations.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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N.Y. Police Acquittal Sparks Anger, Appeal for Calm

Reaction and WNYC's Arun Venugopal

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Robert Smith Reports on Crowd's Reactions

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Criminal Justice Professor Delores Jones-Brown

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Tensions remain high between police and supporters of Sean Bell after the verdict. i

Tensions remain high between police and supporters of Sean Bell after the reading of a not guilty verdict in the Sean Bell shooting trial outside of the State Supreme Court in the Queens borough of New York City. Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Getty Images
Tensions remain high between police and supporters of Sean Bell after the verdict.

Tensions remain high between police and supporters of Sean Bell after the reading of a not guilty verdict in the Sean Bell shooting trial outside of the State Supreme Court in the Queens borough of New York City.

Getty Images

A New York judge has found three police officers not guilty in the death of an unarmed black man who was hit by a barrage of bullets and died hours before his wedding.

Justice Arthur Cooperman cleared two officers of manslaughter and other charges and a third of reckless endangerment in the death of Sean Bell, 23. Along with two friends, Bell was shot after a bachelor party at a Queens strip club on Nov. 25, 2006. The officers fired 50 shots at him.

The case has generated outrage in New York's black community. A crowd of at least 200 people gathered outside the building, waiting for news of a verdict. Some wore buttons with Bell's picture or held signs saying "Justice for Sean Bell."

The Reverend Al Sharpton is calling for a weekend of protest and civil disobedience in New York City.

Leroy Gadsden of the NAACP told the crowd at the courthouse that if they plan to protest, to make it peaceful.

"If people get in the streets they have that right," Gadsden said. "We hope the police will respect that right, because it's because of the police we're here today."

Hours after the three detectives were acquitted, the Justice Department said it would review their actions in the case.

Federal authorities said they would consider civil rights charges against Marc Cooper, Gescard Isnora and Mike Oliver. A review will be conducted by the Justice Department, federal prosecutors and the FBI.

Officials will "take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes," the Justice Department said in a statement.

Two of the detectives involved in the shooting were black; the other detective was white.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a statement immediately after the outcome, saying there were no winners in the trial, given the loss to Bell's family and fiancee.

In the trial, defense attorneys painted the victims as drunken and unruly and asserted that officers had reason to believe they were armed and dangerous. Prosecutors tried to convince the judge that the officers were inept and trigger-happy.

None of the officers took the witness stand in his own defense. Instead, Cooperman heard transcripts of the officers testifying before a grand jury, saying they believed they had good reason to use deadly force.

The judge told the court that the police officers' version of events was more credible than the victims' version, and that prosecutors had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the shootings were unjustified.

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