Pubdate: Mon, 27 Nov 2006
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2006 The New York Times Company
Author: Cara Buckley and William K. Rashbaum
Note: Reporting was contributed by Sewell Chan, Stephen Heyman, Daryl 
Khan, Angela Macropoulos, Michael Wilson and Emily Vasquez.
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)
Bookmark: (Policing - United States)


The undercover police officer who fired the first shots at a carload 
of men in Queens early Saturday, setting off a storm of police 
bullets that killed a bridegroom and injured two of his friends, 
suspected at least one of the men had a gun and was intent on 
returning with it to a nearby strip club, according to a person 
briefed on the officers' version of events.

In all, five plainclothes officers -- two of them detectives working 
under cover -- fired 50 bullets at a silver Nissan Altima, killing 
Sean Bell, 23, who was to be married Saturday, and injuring Joseph 
Guzman, 31, and Trent Benefield, 23. Moments earlier, just after 4 
a.m., the three had left a bachelor party at Club Kalua, a strip club 
under surveillance on 94th Avenue in Jamaica.

The undercover detective who fired first had been monitoring the 
group in the club. Once outside, the detective heard Mr. Guzman say 
"Yo, get my gun, get my gun," and head with the others to his car, 
according to police. The undercover officer followed the group on 
foot, then positioned himself in front of their car.

According to the person briefed on the accounts, the detective, his 
police badge around his neck, then pulled out his gun, identified 
himself as a police officer and ordered the occupants to show their 
hands. They did not comply, the person said, but instead gunned the 
car forward, hitting the undercover officer and, seconds later, an 
unmarked police minivan. The undercover officer fired the first of 11 
shots, yelling, "He's got a gun! He's got a gun!"

The undercover officer's version of Saturday's shooting came on a day 
when he and the four other officers involved in the shooting were put 
on paid administrative leave and stripped of their weapons. The 
police publicly offered few additional details about the shooting, 
refusing to even release the names of the officers involved.

At the same time, hundreds of people in Queens angrily protested the 
shooting, prayed and mourned in vigils, and demanded that the officers resign.

But one law enforcement official who had information about Mr. 
Benefield's account said the young man told investigators that Mr. 
Bell panicked when he saw the undercover officer with a gun because 
he did not realize the man was a police officer.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, for his part, on Saturday night called 
Mr. Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre, 22, who is also the mother of the 
couple's two young daughters, to express sympathy, city officials said.

No weapons were found in the Altima, which Mr. Bell had been driving.

In numerous previous police shootings, officers who fired their 
weapons were reassigned to administrative duties and allowed to keep 
their guns. Often after those shootings, police spokesmen quickly 
stated that the shootings appeared to be within department 
guidelines, and thus justified.

But Saturday's shootings may have violated department rules, which 
largely prohibit officers from firing at vehicles. According to 
police guidelines, officers can fire only when they or another person 
is threatened by deadly physical force, but not if that physical 
force comes from a moving vehicle alone.

"The theory is that if the cops have time to set up a clean shot, 
they have time to get out of the way," said Eugene O'Donnell, 
professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 
"The cops shouldn't be firing unless they have a clean line of fire. 
If they have the time to establish that shot they probably have time 
to get out of the way."

But Paul J. Browne, the Police Department's chief spokesman, and 
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said it was too early to 
characterize the shootings. Mr. Browne said it was the department's 
prerogative to put the officers on leave until the department learned 
more about how the night's events unfolded.

Police investigators will not be able to interview the five men who 
fired their weapons -- four detectives, two of them working 
undercover in the nightclub, and one police officer in plain clothes 
- -- until the Queens district attorney's office finishes its investigation.

Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said yesterday that there 
would be "a full and fair investigation," but that his inquiry was in 
the preliminary stages. He said it would include a review of autopsy 
and medical reports, the police reports of the shootings, 911 tapes 
and video recordings from inside and outside the club.

He said it was too soon to say whether the case would be presented to 
a grand jury. Mr. Brown said that later today, he planned to meet 
with the Rev. Al Sharpton, other community leaders and some of the 
victims' family members.

But in past police shooting cases, when the facts were in dispute, 
evidence was put before a grand jury. He said the inquiry likely 
would go on for a number of weeks, but could not say precisely how long.

Roughly 300 protesters gathered at a fiery rally led by Mr. Sharpton 
in front of Mary Immaculate Hospital yesterday, where Mr. Benefield 
and Mr. Guzman were recovering from their bullet wounds. Some 
protesters called for the ouster of Mr. Kelly; others demanded that 
the five officers resign.

Malcolm Smith, a Democratic state senator from Queens, urged calm, 
saying an impartial investigation was under way, but was drowned out 
by a chorus of shouts and boos. When Thomas White Jr., a councilman 
who represents the 28th District in Jamaica, said "We are not going 
to be angry," the crowd roared back: "Oh, yes we are!"

Many at the protest saw parallels between Saturday's shooting and the 
death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Western African immigrant who was 
fatally gunned down by police officers in 1999. One sign read, "41 
now 50," a reference to the number of shots fired at Mr. Diallo and 
the number fired Saturday night.

In Mr. Diallo's shooting death, though, the four officers who fired 
at him were white. The undercover officer who fired the first shots 
Saturday was a Hispanic black, according to the police. Two other 
officers who fired at the Altima were black, and another two were 
white, one of whom went through one clip and reloaded his pistol, 
firing a total of 31 shots.

Mr. Bell's fiancee, Ms. Paultre, collapsed while walking from 
Community Church of Christ, where supporters were gathered, to the 
rally, her face twisted with grief. After the rally, protesters 
marched around the hospital, filling the street and sidewalks and 
chanting. They marched to the 103rd police precinct station, where 
officers stood at metal barricades, but the tension broke, and the 
crowd returned to the hospital.

After night fell, people gathered in front of Mr. Benefield's 
apartment building on 123-65 147th Street in Queens, holding candles, 
laying flowers and murmuring prayers.

"Those shootouts are like the Wild Wild West out there," said Bishop 
Lester Williams, the pastor at the Community Church of Christ, who 
was going to officiate at the wedding. "That's an execution -- that's 
like putting someone in front of a firing squad."

Mr. Benefield, who had been struck three times in the leg and 
buttock, was alert and in stable condition, and Mr. Guzman, who had 
at least 11 bullet wounds along his right side, was in stable but 
critical condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. Mr. Guzman, 
according to the state Department of Correctional Services, has a 
criminal record including convictions for robbery, criminal 
possession of a weapon and criminal sale of a controlled substance.

Sanford Rubenstein, the lawyer representing the two men and their 
families, said he had not yet spoken with either man and did not know 
their accounts of the night's events.

The police, in describing the events leading to the shooting, said 
that undercover officers and detectives from the Manhattan South vice 
enforcement squad and the department's narcotics division were 
patrolling Club Kalua Saturday following a string of violations there 
for prostitution, under-age drinking and weapons complaints. Eight of 
the violations this year had resulted in arrests, three of them 
involving patrons who were arrested for criminal possession of a 
weapon, the police said. One more violation at the club would result 
in its closing, the police said.

The undercover officer who eventually fired the first shots Saturday 
had been in the club, the police said. He saw one patron pat his 
waistband, indicating he had a gun; the undercover officer then 
radioed his supervisor, who was in an unmarked police car outside.

The undercover officer then went outside, and saw a group of eight 
men, including two men believed to be Mr. Guzman and Mr. Bell, 
arguing with another man. Mr. Guzman then asked for his gun, 
according to the police.

The group then apparently split up into two groups of four, though it 
was unclear whether that patron who had patted his waistband was with 
them, the police said. Mr. Guzman and Mr. Bell's group turned the 
corner onto Liverpool Street and got into the Altima.

James M. Moschella, a lawyer for the detectives' union who is 
representing the four detectives during the preliminary stages of the 
investigation, defended their actions yesterday.

"Each officer who discharged their weapons believed that their lives 
and the lives of their partners were in imminent danger," he said.

Michael J. Palladino, the president of the Detective Endowment 
Association, insisted that deadly force was being used against the 
detectives, which could have justified their response. "The amounts 
of shots that were fired do not necessarily spell out the word 
excessive," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake