Sean Bell Verdict
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Three NYPD detectives were acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of an unarmed black man. The city is tense. In the wee hours of November 25, 2006, Sean Bell was killed in a hail of gunfire outside of Queens, New York Strip Club. He was to be married that same day. He was 23 years old. Joining us with more is NPR's Robert Smith, who is at our studios in New York. How are you doing?
ROBERT SMITH: I'm doing fine. How are you doing?
CHIDEYA: Good. Tell us what was happening that night, the night of the shooting between Bell, his friends, and the police.
SMITH: Well, it was his bachelor party and he had been out until 4 in the morning with his friends Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, and they had left the bar. And at that point, the, sort of, officers' take over the story from what they heard, they had heard that one of these young men say they were going to go get their gun. And the officers, these are undercover officers, they're not wearing uniforms, they're not flashing badges, they follow the men to their car. At this point, the officers had said that they identified themselves as police, but Sean Bell hit the accelerator on the car, glance at one of the officers and try to escape. They thought they saw a gun, they shot.
The young men say that the police officers did not identify themselves, that they thought they were being carjacked and that's why they were trying to get away. Now, of course, it turned out none of these men had a gun and that's what made this really a case that was so sad and so devastating for the city, and this 23-year-old young man, two daughters, about to marry his - the mother of his children on that day. It was a really devastating case and it still remains after this verdict. Yeah.
CHIDEYA: So, why do you think, or why do others involved in observing this case think that the officers were acquitted of these charges?
SMITH: Well, luckily, the judge himself had a few remarks on that when he released the verdict. You know, he doesn't have to, he could just say, not guilty. But, he actually said that he didn't, he didn't believe the witnesses who had testified against the officers, the friends of Sean Bell. That he felt they were less - he just didn't believe their testimonies as much as he believed the officers. That the officers did fear that their lives were in danger and remember that's the standard, they just have to fear that their lives are in danger. And he said something interesting because he said, the judge, said that he found that they did not do anything criminal, the police officers. But he raised that perhaps they could have been careless or incompetent. Well, those are different standards and carelessness and incompetence are left to other forms, he said. There's a civil lawsuit out there and - I'm sorry there's a lawsuit against the city and perhaps civil rights charges against the officers.
CHIDEYA: Now, watching this morning on television, folks across the country saw a large crowd outside the court.
SMITH: Yeah, yeah.
CHIDEYA: What was their reaction?
SMITH: It was incredibly emotional. The verdict sort of filtered down the steps of the court house and you could see it like a wave moving back in this crowd of mostly African-Americans. And they shouted out and people started to cry and scream out, no and not guilty! At this point, one of the young men, the friend of Sean Bell, Trent Benefield, comes running down the steps of the courthouse, he knocks over one of the barriers that the police had setup and his friends are trying to comfort him and he's running through crowds and he's running away from the cameras, who are surrounding him, and people are pushing and shoving and crying and screaming out, murder, murder. It was so, it was so emotional there. And it's funny because a lot people I've talked too afterwards said, oh, it wasn't surprising, you know, the court always backs up the police officers. But at that time, I can say people really thought that this time, this time the court would find at least one of the officers guilty, so...
CHIDEYA: New York has been the scene of some other high profile shootings...
CHIDEYA: Of this type like Patrick Dorismond and Amado Diallo, of course. So, do you think there will be a widespread reaction in the city, and if so, what form will it take, protests, you know, is there a chance of violence? What do you see ahead for New York City?
SMITH: Well, the name Amado Diallo was heard almost as much this morning as Sean Bell. I mean that is still the touchstone for people here in the city on this sort of cases. But, I got to say, this is an entirely different tone in the city right now. I mean, first of all, there is not a lot of contentiousness between sort of the power structure of the city in the African-American community. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, when this happened said, well, its sounds like excessive force, and he asked questions, you know, its inexplicable how you can have 50 shots fired.
And in fact the mayor has been meeting with Reverend Al Sharpton, who has been helping out the family of Sean Bell. And the reverend himself had said many times this week, he didn't speak immediately after the verdict, but he said many times this week that there should be protests, but they should be peaceful. So, there's definitely tension. There's definitely more police officers on the street of the city. There's a lot precautions being taken place, but there is not a really tense, at least racial tone in the city right now.
CHIDEYA: Well, Robert. Thank you so much for that account.
SMITH: You're welcome.
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