November 28, 2006

Shooting “unacceptable”

While promising full probe of wedding-day killing, mayor questions why police needed to fire 50 shots


November 28, 2006 Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the 50 shots fired by cops involved in the Queens strip club shooting that killed an unarmed man on his wedding day "excessive and unacceptable" yesterday. Flanked by most of the two dozen community leaders with whom he had just met, Bloomberg went out of his way to note that the investigation is far from over and that he supports Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. But in saying the dead man, Sean Bell, 23, and two friends who were shot and wounded had done nothing wrong, he appeared to be at odds with police accounts that one of the victims, Joseph Guzman, 31, had left the club to get a gun. No gun was found. And while police sources say there is no evidence to indicate the shooting victims had a gun, police have still not ruled out the possibility a fourth person may have fled the scene with a gun. They also said that Guzman, an ex-convict who according to state records served time in prison for drug possession, weapons possession and robbery, may have planned to get a gun elsewhere, then return to the club. Bloomberg's comments followed a morning meeting at City Hall in which he and Kelly talked with a number of noted activists and politicians from Jamaica, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Charles Rangel. "It's hard to understand - and keep in mind I was not there at the time - why shots should be fired," Bloomberg said. "To me, that sounds excessive and unacceptable." But New York PBA president Patrick J. Lynch said the mayor's comments were "premature and not based on a full and proper investigation. "Premature statements made without the benefit of all of the facts only serve to inflame tensions and prejudice the rights of those who are presumptively innocent," Lynch added. The shots were fired within 10 to 15 seconds, police sources said, adding that it would appear to be a violation of the training police officers received. Kelly said officers are told that in incidents in which they shoot their weapons they should assess the situation after firing three times. But one officer, a 12-year veteran, fired 31 times from his 9-mm pistol, meaning he emptied the gun's magazine and then reloaded. The officers - one Hispanic, two black and two white - have been placed on desk duty and stripped of their guns. Four of them are detectives and one is an officer. The Queens district attorney's office is expected to present the case to a grand jury, law enforcement sources said. The shooting, to some community leaders is likened to the Bronx death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of four cops from the Street Crime Unit in 1999, occurred after a night of celebration at Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica. The notorious strip club was shut down for several months last year under terms of the Nuisance Abatement Act and police recently made arrests there for prostitution and drug sales. Two undercover officers who left their badges and guns in an unmarked car stepped past security guards and into the club at 12:40 a.m. Sunday to look for criminal activity, police said. Bell, a deliveryman and father of two, who was set to marry later that day was there with seven friends. What happened next is still not entirely clear. The Queens district attorney's office, in a routine move, has asked the New York Police Department not to interview the cops who fired their weapons until its investigation is complete. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement, "I will reach no conclusions until the investigation is complete. There will be no rush to judgment." The two detectives involved who did not fire their weapons have been interviewed. But one was a block away when shots were fired and the other, a lieutenant, was taking cover at the time and did not see much, police said. There were likely a number of other witnesses, sources said, but many ran off. Police sources said that video tape from a security camera inside the club, shows a number of patrons entering and exiting the club. Police plan to try and track down as many people as possible in an effort to find witnesses who may have fled after the shooting. Those who have been interviewed include Guzman and the other shooting victim, Trent Benefield, 23, each of whom had been drinking fairly heavily, sources said. Police do believe, however, that the shooting was set in motion when one of the undercover officers saw a bouncer in a white baseball cap approach a woman, possibly a dancer at the club, tell her he was aware of some problems she had earlier with some men. The bouncer patted his waistband to indicate he was carrying a gun. After calling other officers on his cell phone, the undercover officer left the club, sources said, and saw an argument between two groups of men, one of them including Bell and his friends. Guzman at that point was heard telling his friends he wanted to get his gun, police said. At the same time, back-up police officers raced to the scene and the undercover officers, who had left their guns in an unmarked police car because club security searches for weapons, were retrieving their weapons. One of the undercover officers, a detective, got in front of Bell's car to stop him from driving off. It is not clear if he identified himself as an officer - two police sources said he did, but police officials have not yet determined if that was the case. Either way, Bell hit the gas and struck the police officer, then twice struck a police minivan. The NYPD Patrol Guide prohibits officers from firing at a car if no other weapon is being used by the suspect - but there are exceptions, sources said. If the undercover officers believe that Guzman had a gun, that would seem to provide the reason to fire at the car, sources said. The undercover officer fired 11 times, police said and gunfire was quickly followed by shots from four colleagues. Bell, struck in the neck and arm, died at the scene. Benefield, hit in the leg and buttocks, is in stable condition at Mary Immaculate Hospital. Guzman, shot at least 11 times along his right side, was in critical, but stable condition at the same hospital. The undercover officer who did not fire his weapon had two beers, the amount allowed, as police want undercover officers to blend into their surroundings, but remain fit for duty, police said. It is not clear if the undercover officer who fired his weapon had been drinking.

Q & A

Why are so many details about the shooting still unclear? Any time there is a police shooting, the district attorney's office investigating the incident asks the NYPD not to interview the cops involved until after it completes its probe. Can police shoot at a moving vehicle? The NYPD patrol specifically prohibits this "unless deadly physical force is being used against the police officer or another person present by means other than a motor vehicle." The undercover officer who first fired said he heard one of the shooting victims, Joseph Guzman, say he was going to get his gun. No gun was found in the car in which Guzman was riding, but his statement, police sources said, could provide the justification for the officer opening fire. Did the shooting victims have a weapon? No gun has been found, though police have not ruled out the possibility that a man seen running from the scene may have been with the three men who were shot. Guzman also was heard outside the club saying he was going to get his gun. Were the undercovers investigating Sean Bell, the man shot and killed? No. Two undercover detectives were at Kalua Cabaret as part of a crackdown on illegal activity at nightclubs. The club had been shut down for several months last year. Since reopening, there have been prostitution arrests at the club. Last Tuesday, police said, a drug dealer was arrested inside the club. The undercover detectives left their badges and guns inside an unmarked police car, then retrieved their guns when it appeared there might be trouble brewing outside the club. Were the undercover detectives inside Kalua Cabaret drinking? Undercover officers are allowed to have two alcoholic beverages in an effort to blend in. There were two undercover detectives inside the strip club. The one who did not fire his weapon had two beers. The other undercover detective, it is believed, also had two drinks. An assistant chief after the shooting deemed both of them fit for duty. What happens next? The Queens DA will present the case to a grand jury, possibly this week. Detectives, meanwhile, will continue searching for witnesses who may have fled the scene. Guzman was interviewed briefly the first day. Detectives also may try to re-interview him, though it is possible his lawyer would prevent that.

The timeline

12:40 a.m. - Two undercover detectives slip in to Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica. They leave their badges and guns in their unmarked police car to avoid being identified as cops by security guards. Sean Bell, a 23-year-old deliveryman, is hours away from marrying the mother of his two children. He is at the club for his bachelor party with seven other friends. 3 a.m. - One of the detectives grows concerned after he sees a bouncer assure a woman, possibly a dancer, that he is aware of an argument she had had with a group of men. The bouncer pats his waistband, suggesting he is armed. The detectives calls for assistance. 3:50 a.m. - 3:55 a.m. - The undercover officer, now outside the club, sees two groups of men, one including Sean Bell, involved in an argument. Bell's friend, Joseph Guzman, is overheard talking about plans to get a gun. 3:55 - 3:39 a.m. - Bell and his friends, Guzman and Trent Benefield, head down Liverpool Street. There may have been a fourth man walking with them. One of the undercover officers, on the west side of Liverpool, is following the friends on foot and nods at a lieutenant driving by indicating that Bell and his friends are the ones who might have a gun. 4 a.m. - The undercover gets in front of Bell's Altima. Bell hits the gas, striking the officer, then slams into an unmarked police van, police said. Bell puts his car in reverse and slams into a security gate, then strikes the van a second time. By now, the undercover has opened fire, joined by cops who were in the van.