No, The Cops Didn’t Murder Sean Bell

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Winter 2007

New York’s anti-cop forces have roared back to life, thanks to a fatal police shooting of an unarmed man on November 25, 2006. The press is once again fawning over Al Sharpton, Herbert Daughtry, Charles Barron, and sundry other hate-mongers in and out of city government as they accuse the police of widespread mistreatment of blacks and issue barely veiled threats of riots if they do not get “justice.” A Sharpton-led march down Fifth Avenue on December 16 called for an end to “police terror” and the firing of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

The allegation that the November shooting was racially motivated is preposterous. According to press and police reports, a group of undercover officers working in a gun- and drug-plagued strip joint in Queens had good reason to believe that a group leaving the club was armed and about to shoot an adversary. When one of the undercovers identified himself as an officer, the car holding the group twice tried to run him down. The officer started firing while yelling to the car’s occupants: “Let me see your hands.” His colleagues, believing they were under attack, fired as well, eventually shooting off 50 rounds and killing the driver, Sean Bell, 23. No gun was found in the car, but witnesses and video footage confirm that a fourth man in the party fled the scene once the altercation began. Bell and the other men with him all had been arrested for illegal possession of guns in the past; one of Bell’s companions that night, Joseph Guzman, had spent considerable time in state prison, including for an armed robbery in which he shot at his victim. According to some credible reports, Bell and his entourage were involved in illegal drug dealing; that someone with them would have been armed, then, is plausible.

Nothing in these facts suggests that racial animus lay behind the incident. (Though this detail should be irrelevant, the undercover team was racially mixed, and the officer who fired the first shot was black.) But even more preposterous than the assertion that the shooting hinged on race is the claim by New York’s self-appointed minority advocates that they care about the well-being of the minority community. If they did, here are seven things that you would have heard them say years ago:

1. “Stop the killing!” Since 1993, 11,353 people have been murdered in New York City. The large majority of victims and perpetrators have been black. Not a single one of those black-on-black killings has prompted protest or demonstrations from the city’s black advocates. Sharpton, Barron, et al. are happy to let thousands of black victims get mowed down by thugs without so much as a whispered call for “peace” or “justice”; it’s only when a police officer, trying to protect the public, makes a good-faith mistake in a moment of intense pressure that they rise as vindicators of black life. (As for caring about slain police officers, forget about it. Sixteen cops—including several black policemen—have been killed since 1999, not one of whom elicited a public demonstration of condolence from the race hustlers.)

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If the city’s black advocates paid even a tiny fraction of the attention that they pay to shootings by criminals as they pay to shootings by police, they could change the face of the city. If demonstrators gathered outside the jail cell of every rapist and teen stickup thug, cameras in tow, to shame them for their attacks on law-abiding minority residents, they could deglamorize the gangsta life. Think you’ll find Sharpton or Barron patrolling with the police in dark housing-project stairways, trying to protect residents from predators? Not a chance.

2. “Police killings of innocent civilians—each one of them a horror—are nonetheless rare.” The instances of an officer shooting an innocent, unarmed victim are so unusual that they can be counted on one’s fingers. Last year, of the nine suspects fatally shot by the police, two had just fired at an officer, three were getting ready to fire, two had tried to stab an officer, and two were physically attacking an officer. Far more frequent are the times when the NYPD refrains from using force though clearly authorized to do so. So far this year, officers have been fired upon four times without returning fire. In 2005, there were five such incidents. And the NYPD apprehended 3,428 armed felons this year, 15 percent more than last year.

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Here’s a simple proposition: Why don’t the anti-cop agitators shoulder the responsibility for public safety in even one inner-city neighborhood, in lieu of those dangerous NYPD officers? They would never have the courage to do so, but if they did, it would be a safe bet that fatalities would go up rather than down.

3. “The police work every day to save lives.” If New York City murders had remained at their early 1990s highs, instead of dropping from 1,927 killings in 1993 to 540 in 2005, 13,698 more people—most of them black and Hispanic—would have been dead by last year. They are alive today thanks to the relentless efforts of the NYPD to bring the same level of safety to poor minority neighborhoods as to Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side.

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The New York Times, Al Vann, and other City Council hotheads such as Helen Foster notwithstanding, someone who believes that black lives are worth less than white lives is not going to put his own life at risk working in dangerous environments trying to get guns away from criminals.

4. “If you witnessed a crime, help the authorities solve it.” The police could probably lock away just about every dangerous thug roaming the streets if they got more cooperation from witnesses and people with knowledge of the crime. Instead, they often encounter a wall of hostile silence in minority communities. Bystanders sometimes deliberately block officers chasing a criminal. The stigma against helping the police—referred to derogatorily as “snitching”—is pervasive. “If you’re a snitch, people want to kill you,” a teen robber in a Brooklyn crime-rehabilitation program that I observed this spring explained. Helping the police is seen as helping the enemy, defined in racial terms. Even black officers are part of the hated white establishment. “Black cops, I disrespect them. They sucking the white man,” asserted another juvenile delinquent in the Crown Heights rehab program.

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It would be astounding if any of the anti-police activists leading protests about the Sean Bell shooting had ever attended a precinct community meeting or offered to help the police solve crimes. Presumably, they have more important things to do than work to improve the quality of life in minority neighborhoods. Let the police take care of that. But even if the anti-cop activists can’t be bothered to give a few hours a month to fight crime, they could at least use their bully pulpit to call on others to share what they know about criminals and to help get violent offenders off the street before they injure more people and property. Instead, their opportunistic cop-bashing only increases the hatred of the police and the stigma against cooperating with them. As a result, more lives will be taken by cop-eluding barbarians.

5. “The NYPD and the criminal-justice system investigate every police shooting with profound seriousness; they will not rest until the facts are uncovered and justice done.” The premise of the current grandstanding by “minority advocates” is that the authorities would shrug off the recent shooting without heat from the street. One thinks of the rooster in the fable, who believes that his crowing raises the sun. “Business will not go on as usual until we get justice for Sean Bell,” Sharpton said four days after the shooting. It is not Sharpton and his cronies who are getting justice for Bell, however. The street agitators could all go home (sometimes, as in the case of Sharpton, to suburbia) and wait quietly for a resolution, and the system would proceed just as diligently to assign fault if fault was present and to hold any wrongdoers accountable.

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Every time the anti-police lobby issues superfluous demands for a “full investigation” and threats of violence if “justice” is not done, they send the destructive message that the police are indifferent to the loss of life. Or they send a worse message still: “I’m not asking my people to do anything passive anymore,” said City Councilman Charles Barron. “Don’t ask us to ask our people to be peaceful while they are being murdered. We’re not the only ones that can bleed.”

6. “Police officers make mistakes; tragically, those mistakes are sometimes deadly.” Perhaps Al Sharpton, Charles Barron, and Jesse Jackson have never made an error of judgment, except for Tawana Brawley and suchlike. Perhaps, too—though this is truly unlikely—they have had to confront the possibility that they are facing someone about to shoot them and that they must decide in a split second whether to shoot first. Perhaps in such circumstances, they would never ever make the wrong decision. If so, perhaps they are justified in strutting around like beings of superhuman prescience and infallibility.

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This is not to say that the public and elected officials should automatically excuse every police shooting—which they are obviously far from doing. But to presume that every mistaken shooting represents a system-wide failure is inaccurate and unrealistic. The New York Times darkly commands: “[T]he Police Department must . . . confront the fact that a disaster that everyone swore to prevent seven years ago has repeated itself in Queens.” But because cops are humans and therefore fallible, it is impossible to prevent every wrongful shooting—without emasculating the police entirely. The New York Times has itself made a few mistakes over the last seven years; perhaps it, too, needs to confront its persistent fallibility.

7. “The police concentrate their efforts in minority communities because that is where the crime is.” Race hustlers accuse the police of “racially profiling” and targeting minorities for unjustified police action. After showing up in New York for his time in the Sean Bell spotlight, Jesse Jackson announced: “Our criminal-justice system has broken down for black Americans and young black males. We’ve marched and marched, bled too profusely, and died too young. We must draw a line in the sand and fight back.”

Memo to Jackson: The police have a disproportionate number of interactions with blacks because blacks are committing a disproportionate number of crimes. That fact comes from the testimony of the victims of those crimes, themselves largely black, not from the police. In New York City, blacks committed 62 percent of all murders, rapes, robberies, and assaults from 1998 to 2000, according to victim and witness identification, even though they make up only 25 percent of the city’s population. Whites committed 8 percent of those crimes over that period, though they are 28 percent of New York residents. These proportions have been stable for years and remain so today. It’s not the criminal-justice system that has broken down for young black males; it’s families and other sources of cultural support. Changing the subject and blaming the police just perpetuates the problem.

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