NEW YORK -- Once again a hail of police bullets has ended the life of an unarmed black New Yorker, and the city's mayor finds himself walking an uncertain line between reassuring black and Latino residents and defending his police force.
With a councilman saying that black people are being "murdered" and some black clergy signaling their discontent with Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is white, walked into a news conference yesterday and spoke of his profound unease over the shooting by undercover police that claimed the life of a bridegroom on his wedding day.
"I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50 shots fired," Bloomberg said. "It sounds to me that excessive force was used, but that's up to the district attorney to find out."
In a visible symbol of Bloomberg's concern, he was accompanied by a number of prominent African-American pastors and politicians, including activist preacher Al Sharpton and Representative Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat. The night before, Sharpton came to the Community Church of Christ in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens and vowed that he was going to "keep this in the street."
The shooting occurred early Sunday morning as an undercover officer trailed three men -- Sean Bell, 23, Joseph Guzman, 31, and Trent Benefield, 23 -- as they left a bachelor party at the Kalua Cabaret club in Jamaica. The three had argued with two men inside the club and left, trying to avoid trouble, witnesses said.
The officer told the three men to stop, although witnesses differ about whether the officer identified himself and flashed his badge.
Bell and his friends, witnesses told the New York Daily News, feared that the undercover officer was a friend of those they had argued with and that he was carrying a gun. The men tried to pull away in their car, scraping the leg of an officer. An officer fired a shot, and four more officers pulled out their 9mm guns and began shooting.
Three bullets fatally struck Bell, a delivery man and father of two, who died just hours before his marriage ceremony was to take place.
Benefield and Guzman were injured; the latter had 11 bullet wounds. None of the three men carried a gun, and police manacled the two survivors as they lay bleeding on the ground, a fact that concerned civil libertarians.
"It's not as if people so seriously wounded were a flight risk," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Yet they were treated as criminals for having gotten shot by the police."
Kelly offered a carefully calibrated defense, noting that the Hispanic officer who opened fire was a 12-year veteran and apparently thought the car was trying to hit him. Three of the five officers who fired shots were black or Latino.
Kelly's spokesmen released data indicated that New York officers now fire 40 percent fewer shots per incident than in 1995. Police killed 30 people in 1996, compared with nine in 2005 and 10 so far this year.
Maki Haberfeld, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and specialist in the use of deadly force, said she was not inclined to second-guess officers operating under stress at night. "There are distorted perceptions of time and motion, and fear and adrenaline, and it takes 20 seconds to fire 50 shots," she said. "I'm taken aback by how the mayor indicted these officers. How could he know?"
But such arguments and statistics soothed few nerves, particularly for those who live in neighborhoods with a history of frayed relations with the police. Sunday's shooting called to mind the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in 1999. A peddler and student, Diallo was returning home when undercover police officers told him to stop. He panicked and officers fired 41 shots, 19 of them hitting and killing Diallo. His death came to symbolize the unsightly underbelly of then- mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's war on crime.
That history was very much alive in the minds of residents on the streets of Jamaica yesterday. Theirs is a prosperous lower-middle-class neighborhood with vibrant shops, the crack-fueled crime of 10 years ago a fading memory. Yet many said police still pat down young men for guns and stop cars with little reason.
"The demeanor when they talk to people -- they have a nasty attitude," said Wayne Johnson, 43, a round-faced car-service driver. "They'll come and see us talking on the corner and say, 'What you doing here?' They think everyone is a drug dealer."
Monique Holley, 23, attends the nearby Queensboro Community College and has passed her exam to become a police officer. Yesterday, she found herself struggling with second thoughts. "If I become a cop, how would people look at me? That's what I am debating today."