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by Peter Moskos

March 13, 2008

Always the narcs getting into trouble

Too often, almost predictably, undercover vice units are involved in scandal. Even the Sean Bell shooting has a strong narc connection.

The Night Club Task Force involved in the Sean Bell shooting was formed in reaction to the Chelsea abduction and murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Moore. These undercover vice and narcotics officers worked to establish patterns of wrongdoings in clubs, such as alcohol sales to minors, to force closure with civil proceedings and nuisance abatement laws. Evidently they did a good job. Perhaps the unit should have been disbanded with accolades. Instead, after three months in Chelsea, commanders sent the 20 or so police officers to Queens. In the killing of Sean Bell, this unit’s undercover vice and narcotics mentality is very evident.

In a drug arrest, it is important to find drugs on a person. Otherwise there is no case. Vice and narcotics officers are ingrained to work in ways that build strong court cases. But guns aren’t drugs. If the officers believed that Bell and his friends were going to get a gun, they should have stopped the suspects before they got to their car. But they wanted an arrest. If the men weren’t in the car with the gun, no court case would have had a change. But still, any illegal gun would be confiscated and them men would spend a night in jail

Undercover units should be limited to operations that uniformed officers can’t handle. Because plainclothes police know and feel they are police to the bone, when performing police duties they can too easily forget or fail to convince citizens that they are, in fact, police. Badges can be bought on eBay. The flash of a shield isn’t enough, especially when a gun is involved.

Uniformed foot patrol can work with bars and nightclubs to alleviate problems rather than sting them out of business. There is nothing about a rowdy bar that a good cop or two can’t handle. Local beat cops know the area. Officers on foot are rarely involved in controversial shootings because they are more familiar with the surrounding and less likely to be afraid. The good old-fashioned beat cop... Nobody is better at keeping the peace. Instead of drug cops trying to make a good arrest, beat cops focused on public safety would have saved the life of Sean Bell and the careers of three police officers.

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