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by Peter Moskos

March 6, 2008

The Trial in the Killing of Sean Bell

Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, should not have died. But the officers on trial won’t be convicted of anything major. The police certainly make mistakes. We all do. Like it or not, mistakes aren’t usually crimes, especially for police.

After any high-profile police shooting, there is the hope that time will reveal the truth and truth will lead to justice. This trial won’t bring truth or justice because there is no single truth.

In the Sean Bell shooting, there are as many truths as there were bad choices. On many different levels the events leading up to Sean Bell’s death were not exactly ideal police work. Yet everybody behaved rationally in their own way.

Sean Bell left a club and thought a black man with a gun was a robber. Bell drove away, hitting the gunman in self-defense. An undercover officer fired in self-defense when a drunk man he thought was armed hit him with his vehicle. The officer’s partners fired when they thought they were being fired on from the vehicle.

It only takes one bullet to kill. While the number of shots fired makes the headline, what matters is why police shot at all. The first shot, combined with adrenaline and danger, often causes other officers to shoot. This is the so-called “contagion effect.”

Police aren’t supposed to shoot at or from moving vehicles. But police are trained to shoot when they think their life is in danger. If that threat exists for 10 seconds, they will fire for 10 seconds. When I was a police officer, my gun held 17 rounds, two more than allowed in New York City. I could fire 50 rounds in 15 seconds. I was trained to reload quickly and “get back in the game.” If you don’t like that, change the training or change the gun. But don’t blame police officers.

This trial has become a symbol for race and policing in New York City. Are police too quick to see young African-American men as threats? Would so many shots be fired if Bell and his friends were white? Perhaps not, but police kill white people too. You just don’t hear about it because there is no white version of Al Sharpton.

It’s unfair to unload three centuries of American racial discrimination and police mistreatment onto the backs of these three police officers, especially when two happen to be black. The shame is that short of vigils and riots, our society has no ritualized way to atone for collective sins.

Sean Bell isn’t on trial. Society isn’t on trial. The New York Police Department isn’t on trial. Three men are. Conviction would mean the loss of their jobs and freedom. But a guilty verdict won’t bring Sean Bell back to life. And acquittals won’t return the police officers’ lives to normal.

Despite the police cliché, “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” police don’t want to be judged by twelve. Police, often for good reason, don’t trust city juries. The officers want a bench trial so their fate is in the hands of a Queens judge rather than a Queens jury.

Judges are better at deciding cases on facts rather than prejudice and personal experience. Of course judges, especially senior white judges, have fewer reasons to have prejudice against police officers. This senior judge, Justice Cooperman, is certainly no cop hater, but he’s also no pushover. Cooperman actually tried, convicted, and imprisoned two police officers in 1986.

Still, beyond a reasonable doubt is a tough legal standard to prove. Was there a need to shoot in the first place? Was a threat still present when the last shot was fired? If the answer is yes or even maybe—anything but a strong no means no conviction.

My gut knows the police did something wrong because Sean Bell is dead. But what should a reasonable police officer have done? I don’t know. I never had to shoot my gun on duty. My gun was never the only thing between me and an SUV trying to kill me. I have doubts. As long as Justice Cooperman has some of the same doubts, the officers will and should walk free.

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