I haven’t really been following the trial of the four cops who shot an unarmed Sean Bell outside the strip club where he’d just had a bachelor party. However, a few things seem worth mentioning.
First of all, the fact that the cops fired 50 shots is vivid and horrific, but I don’t think it says much about the cops who did the shooting.
Cops used to be taught to draw and fire a shot when threatened, but there have been incidents where the offender shot back and a cop got killed because his shot missed or he didn’t hit the offender in a vital area. Nowadays, in the interest of protecting the lives of police officers, they often shoot until the offender goes down.
When the threatening person is seated in a car, as Bell was, he’s already as down as he’s going to get, so the cops just keep on shooting. It’s not that the cops are too stupid to realize the target is seated, but a gunfight is so incredibly stressful that it suppresses conscious thought. A few years ago there was a shooting incident involving a man in a wheelchair—the cops in that case fired a lot of rounds into him as well.
Second, this situation started when Bell and his friend got into his car and the cops rolled up to stop him from leaving. Bell tried to drive away and rammed the police cars in the process, so the cops opened fire.
Bell’s defenders point out that these were plainclothes cops in unmarked cars, so Bell didn’t know they were cops and probably thought he was about to be killed. Defenders of the cops responded that the cops identified themselves by yelling “Police!” as they approached.
With all due respect to the cops, who were probably just following procedure, that’s really not true in any normal sense of the word identify.
To identify themselves, the cops would have had to pull out their badge and department identification and show it to Bell, or at least they would have had to arrive in a marked police car and wear a police uniform, or maybe even just have a marked car put in an appearance.
These cops did not identify themselves as police. What they did was drive up and jump out with their guns and claim to be police. Which is something anyone can do.
I can’t know what was going through Bell’s mind as the cars pulled up to block him in, and the armed men jumped out, but I have no trouble believing he freaked out and went into full fight-or-flight mode. He may have noticed that the attacking men were yelling, but he was probably too flooded with adrenaline to recognize the words, let alone to think rationally about what the words meant.
There’s something wrong about a system in which police can start a violent action—a takedown or a raid on a drug house—and simply by yelling “Police!” can shift the entire burden of safe and reasonable behavior onto everyone else.
Third, defenders of the police in these incidents usually claim that the situation was confusing, frightening, and volatile, and the cops had to make split-second decisions for which they should not be held criminally accountable.
Fair enough. But shouldn’t the exact same reasoning apply to the other people involved in the incident? In fact, given that the cops were the ones who started the incident, shouldn’t the other guys get even more benefit of the doubt?
Yet if the situation was reversed, if Sean Bell had succeeded in driving away from the scene but run over and killed a cop in the process, does anybody think he’d have been as successful claiming confusion at his trial?
Fourth, one of the smartest things I’ve read about this incident is from Jim Leitzel at Vice Squad:
Sean Bell is dead, and there is no criminal responsibility for the police. It isn’t hard to understand the latter part. Police have to make split-second decisions in highly uncertain and stressful situations. Lethal force, which can be applied at a distance, is widely available. A police officer who guesses that a suspect is holding a cell phone could easily be killed, if that guess is wrong and the object turns out to be a gun. (The first police officer to shoot in the Bell case believed from overheard conversations inside the club that a gun might be present.) I think that this is one of the main reasons that courts are extremely reluctant to convict police after the shooting of an unarmed citizen.
But what is the lesson? Well, it is a general point in public policy: the less effective are after-the-fact sanctions, the stronger the case for imposing before-the-fact controls.
It is very difficult, and perhaps even undesirable in most circumstances, to hold police accountable for errors in judgment that result in the death of innocent (or even guilty!) civilians. Therefore, one should only initiate police/citizen encounters when the stakes are high. The police who killed Sean Bell were at the strip club as part of an anti-prostitution sting operation.
The criminalisation of prostitution puts prostitutes, clients, and police at great risk. The toll in the US is small relative to the deaths brought on by the criminalisation of drugs, but it is significant nonetheless. The criminalisation of prostitution isn’t necessary — many places get by just fine with legal, regulated prostitution. Even if prostitution policing were perfect and costless, and even if prostitutes were not put at great risk from clients in a prohibition regime, I would not favor the criminalisation of prostitution. But the violence suffered — by prostitutes, johns, and police — as a result of criminalisation makes a strong case for a legal, regulated adult sex market. One of the enduring mysteries of vice policy is why this steady violence has had so little impact on improving public policy towards prostitution.
In other words, the cops were basically wasting their time and the taxpayers’ money to investigate a victimless crime, and in the process they killed a guy.