“Disgraceful, Excessive, and Unprecedented”

These familiar words weren’t uttered by some demagogue criminal defense lawyer or civil rights tool, though they have been many times before.  This time, they came from the mouth of the Michael J. Palladino, President of the Detectives Endowment Association. 

It was 2006 when cops shot 50 bullets into Sean Bell and his friends on the eve of his wedding day. Do you still remember? So many things have happened since then, good and bad.  At the time, it was big news. There are  eight posts about Sean Bell here from 2008, and my guess is that few of you read them. If you did, they likely blend into obscurity. Here’s a quick reminder of what happened :

The shooting of Mr. Bell, 23, who did not have a gun, occurred in the early morning on Nov. 25, 2006, as Mr. Bell and two friends were leaving a strip club in Jamaica, Queens, where they had been celebrating. The case drew widespread scrutiny of undercover police tactics.

The claim was that undercover officers heard Bell and his friends talk about getting a gun, and they tried to arrest him when Bell drove his car at Det. Gescard Isnora. Isnora fired the first shot at Bell, and other cops joined in.  Bell, who was to be married the next day, was killed, and his two friends were wounded. There was no gun.  Sound familiar now?

The police were tried for manslaughter and acquitted. They were then brought up on departmental charges.  At the time, and in light of the acquittal of criminal charges, I was dubious as to whether departmental charges would be taken seriously, or was a palliative to calm down the outrage.  I wrote at the time :

The question remains whether the NYPD, having gone as far as taking the broad view of wrongdoing in this tragedy, will now pursue it with vigor and integrity.  Charging is one thing.  Now they have to prove that they can pursue their own cops with the same degree of effort and effectiveness that they would use against anyone else.  This has yet to be seen. 

But as first steps go, I’m impressed.  I’m not prepared to go as far as saying that maybe they’ve learned something from all this, but it’s better than they have ever done before.  And that’s something.

It’s now been seen.  The  New York Times reports:

The New York City police detective who fired the first shots in the 50-bullet barrage that killed Sean Bell in 2006 has been fired, and three others involved in the shooting are being forced to resign, law enforcement officials said on Friday.

Law enforcement officials said word of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly’s decision came late Friday. Detective Isnora, an 11-year veteran, will not collect a pension, one official said. “He loses everything,” the official said.

Three other officers — Detectives Marc Cooper and Michael Oliver, who fired shots at Mr. Bell; and Lt. Gary Napoli, a supervisor who was at the scene but did not fire any shots — are being forced to resign.

Forced to resign is code for “gets a pension.” Isnora won’t be so lucky.  This evoked outrage. Not by Sean Bell’s family, who settled with the City (together with the two wounded friends) for $7 million, but the supporters of Isnora.
Mr. Isnora’s lawyer, Philip E. Karasyk, said, “The commissioner’s decision to terminate Detective Isnora is extremely disheartening and callous and sends an uncaring message to the hard-working officers of the New York Police Department who put their lives on the line every day.”

The party line, that police “put their lives on the line every day,” is an argument of desperation. While it may be somewhat true, it’s not a free pass for cops to kill people. Next argument.

Michael J. Palladino, the president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, called Detective Isnora’s firing “disgraceful, excessive, and unprecedented.”

He continued: “Stripping a police officer of his livelihood and his opportunity for retirement is a punishment reserved for a cop who has turned to a life of crime and disgraces the shield. It is not for someone who has acted within the law and was justified in a court of law and exonerated by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Being acquitted of manslaughter isn’t the same as the good housekeeping seal of approval.  Notably, Palladino’s primary concerns are for his union member’s loss of income and pension, the core of every cop’s interest in the job.  While it may strike civilians as misdirected, every cop understands. The pension is the bottom line of law enforcement.  The only thing worse than loss of the pension is death.

One law enforcement official said that, as the reality of the decisions sink in, they could have a drastic impact on how detectives view their work, particularly in the department’s undercover programs.

This is the point of the decision, to have a drastic impact on how police function. It would be nice to think it will be as dramatic as contended, but experience suggests otherwise.  This is still the outlier case. 

The New York City Police Department has finally closed the file on the Sean Bell killing.  The killing happened in 2006. It is now 2012.  Isnora was fired from the job. Sean Bell is dead. Isnora won’t get his pension. Sean Bell’s family received a substantial settlement.  The Union president is outraged.  Sean Bell’s fiance is lonely.

Did this fix the problem?  Will this change the way the police interact with civilians? Will the next undercover detective be more cautious in firing? Will his partners be less inclined to join in the barrage until there are no bullets left in their weapons?

Six years after the death of Sean Bell is a long time to reach closure, but NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly did what he said he would do. Will this be sufficient to change anything?


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