New York -- A coalition of civil rights advocates on Sunday urged changes in the handling of police misconduct and brutality complaints after the acquittal of three officers involved in the shooting death of an unarmed man on his wedding day.
They also called for a permanent state-level special prosecutor to investigate such cases.
"The verdict in the Sean Bell case proves it is almost impossible to successfully prosecute cases of police misconduct, especially in homicide cases," said lawyer Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"The verdict underscores the need for systemic change in the way New York handles these important and at times high profile cases, and to improve community relations," said Siegel, an outspoken advocate on civil rights and law enforcement issues.
Three city police officers were cleared Friday in the November 2006 shooting death of Bell outside a night club where he had just left his bachelor party. Two friends were wounded in the volley of 50 shots fired by the undercover officers and two colleagues.
The officers charged said they thought they were in mortal danger, but no gun was found in Bell's car.
Siegel was joined at a news conference outside police headquarters by state Sen. Eric Adams and retired police officer Marq Claxton. Adams and Claxton co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.
Adams, a former police captain, said the state-level special prosecutor's office should be reinstated permanently by law. A previous special prosecutor's office was created by former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1974 but abolished in 1993 by Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, whose office prosecuted the Bell shooting case, had said there was no basis for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
The special prosecutor should have power to investigate allegations of police misconduct and brutality, as well as corruption, they said. The previous office was created primarily as a result of corruption exposes in the NYPD, and that was its primary focus, Siegel said.
"They looked the other way on cases of brutality," Siegel said.
Adams also urged passage of legislation to give the state attorney general's office power to take immediate control of a crime scene in cases like the Bell shooting to make sure all evidence is preserved.
"I don't believe a police department involved in a shooting should be responsible for the crime scene," he said.
Siegel and Adams said they looked for support on the issues from Gov. David Paterson, who recently replaced the disgraced Gov. Eliot Spitzer, saying that as a legislator and minority rights spokesman Paterson had been a strong voice in previous police shooting controversies.
Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for Paterson, said the governor had learned of the proposals only from media reports and would review them.
He "takes the issue of police wrongdoing very seriously, but he also believes that the overwhelming majority of police officers perform their duties honorably and conscientiously each and every day," Duggan said.
Also Sunday, more than 200 people, including elected officials and civil rights leaders, gathered at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network in Manhattan to renew calls for officials of the U.S. Department of Justice to bring federal charges against the three officers.
April 26, 2008 -- Associated Press (US)
Sharpton Vows To 'Close This City' After Officer Acquittals
Hundreds March In Harlem After Officers' Acquittal; Sharpton Threatens To 'Close This City'
By Verena Dobnik, AP News
Hundreds of angry people marched through Harlem on Saturday after the Rev. Al Sharpton promised to "close this city down" to protest the acquittals of three police detectives in the 50-shot barrage that killed a groom on his wedding day and wounded two friends.
"We strategically know how to stop the city so people stand still and realize that you do not have the right to shoot down unarmed, innocent civilians," Sharpton told an overflow crowd of several hundred people at his National Action Network office in the historically black Manhattan neighborhood. "This city is going to deal with the blood of Sean Bell."
Sharpton was joined by the family of 23-year-old Sean Bell -- a black man -- and a friend of Bell who was wounded in the 2006 shooting outside a Queens strip club. Two of the three officers charged were also black.
The rally at Sharpton's office was followed by a 20-block march down Malcolm X Boulevard and then across 125th Street, Harlem's main business thoroughfare, where some bystanders yelled out "Kill the police!"
Fifty of the marchers carried white placards bearing big black numbers for each of the police bullets fired at Bell and his friends.
Sharpton urged people to return for a meeting this coming week "to plan the day that we will close this city down" with the kind of "massive civil disobedience" once led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"They never accused Sean Bell of doing anything. Then why is he dead?" Sharpton asked, his voice roaring with anger. Authorities "have shown now that they will not hold police accountable. Well, guess what? If you won't, we will!"
"Shut it down! Shut it down!" the crowd chanted, standing up and applauding wildly.
Sharpton didn't say exactly how they would protest the acquittals of the officers who fired the 50 shots. He said Bell's supporters could demonstrate all over the city, from Wall Street to the home of Justice Arthur Cooperman, who on Friday acquitted the three detectives after a nonjury trial.
Sitting behind Sharpton as he spoke were Bell's parents, his sister and Nicole Paultre Bell, who took her fiance's name after his death.
"The justice system let me down," Paultre Bell told the crowd in a soft voice. "April 25, 2008: They killed Sean all over again. That's what it felt like to us."
It was her first public comment since she stormed out of a courtroom Friday after the NYPD detectives were cleared in Bell's killing as he left his bachelor party.
One of Bell's companions, Joseph Guzman, also spoke briefly on Saturday, saying: "We've got a long fight."
Source: AP News
April 27, 2008 -- New York Times (NY)
Bell's Family and Friends, With Rising Anger, Say Fight Is "Far From Over"
By John Eligon, New York Times
Nicole Paultre Bell, the woman who was to marry Sean Bell the day he was killed in a hail of 50 police bullets, vowed on Saturday to continue demanding accountability for his death, delivering her remarks in a tone that was a departure from her more familiar gentle demeanor.
Joseph Guzman, who was shot more than a dozen times while sitting next to Mr. Bell, followed her to the microphone and spoke in somber tones of the emotional whiplash of the previous 24 hours.
Ms. Paultre Bell and Mr. Guzman spoke publicly on Saturday for the first time since a judge on Friday acquitted three detectives charged in the shooting of Mr. Bell in November 2006 outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens, where he had celebrated his bachelor party.
They were among more than 100 people -- including Mr. Bell's parents, William and Valerie Bell -- who packed into the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network, the organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, to denounce the verdict and the judge who handed it down.
"April 25, 2008, they killed Sean all over again," Ms. Paultre Bell told the audience. "I'm still praying for justice, because this is far from over. Every march, every protest, every rally, I'm going to be right up front."
Mr. Guzman wore a long chain with a diamond-studded "S" hanging from it, a tribute to Mr. Bell. "Yesterday, I felt defeated," he said.
Trent Benefield, who was in the back seat of Mr. Bell's car and was also shot by the police, was not at the meeting because he remained distraught about the verdict, said Michael Hardy, Mr. Benefield's lawyer.
On Friday, Mr. Sharpton pledged to lead boycotts, protests and acts of civil disobedience. But except for a small march in Harlem on Saturday morning -- which Mr. Sharpton did not participate in -- there was no visible reaction in the city to the verdict. Extra security was seen outside the Police Department headquarters. Police vehicles were parked outside the Queens home of the judge who presided over the Bell trial, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman, and a police helicopter flew overhead.
Mr. Sharpton said he planned to meet on Monday with Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight over the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors say they are investigating the case.
Mr. Sharpton also said he would meet on Tuesday night with community leaders in Manhattan to plan demonstrations that he said would begin within a week. As he did on Friday, Mr. Sharpton attacked several parts of Justice Cooperman's statement explaining his verdict. The judge said that prosecutors failed to prove their case and that the wounded friends of Mr. Bell gave testimony that he did not believe.
In Harlem, the relatively small protest started around 11:30 a.m., when a group of more than 100 people marched south on Lenox Avenue from 145th Street. They carried signs with the numerals 1 through 50 written on them.
Inside Mr. Sharpton's headquarters, those closest to Mr. Bell spoke of their own readiness to march. "We still here, we still in it," said Mr. Guzman, who spoke so softly at one point that the audience had to ask him to speak into the microphone.
Mr. Guzman showed little of what the lawyers for the detectives -- and even Justice Cooperman -- suggested was a bellicose demeanor on the witness stand. There were moments when his face turned red, seemingly overcome with emotion. He said he sometimes heard Mr. Bell's voice when he was in his car.
William Bell showed the most frustration. At one point, while everyone stood and chanted, he sat stiff-jawed in his seat, his elbows on his knees and his fingers interlocking. Later, he stepped to the microphone and said, "Is this 1955 Alabama?"
Valerie Bell spoke of her faith in God and her lingering anguish.
"On May 18, 1983, I didn't go through labor pains with my son because he was born C-section," she said. "But on Nov. 25, 2006, that's when my labor pains started." That was the day Mr. Bell was killed.
Ms. Paultre Bell, who took Mr. Bell's name after his death, chose not to make any denunciations after the shooting, deferring to the legal system, said Mr. Hardy, who is representing her, Mr. Benefield and Mr. Guzman in a $50 million lawsuit against the city. That respect had evaporated, he said.
"I think Cooperman's rejection, his unequivocal rejection, was liberating to Nicole," Mr. Hardy said. "She now feels unrestrained in her love for Sean and her quest for justice."
Indeed, on Saturday, Ms. Paultre Bell said, "The justice system let me down."
At one point during his 30-minute speech, Mr. Sharpton's voice rumbled to a scratchy crescendo as he spoke of his childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and how his mother fought to keep him out of trouble and make sure he got an education.
Then, with tears streaming down his face, he pointed to Valerie Bell and Ms. Paultre Bell and said: "I'm going to help these two women fight for that little boy. That little boy didn't deserve to die, and this city is going to deal with the blood of Sean Bell."
Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.
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