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Sean Bell Indictments: Everything’s Black and White

March 19, 2007

Let’s begin with something no authority in this town will acknowledge: when it comes to crime and our so-called “criminal justice” system, whites and blacks view things totally differently.

The O.J. Simpson case is the most obvious manifestation. Other than his New York lawyers, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, every white person in the world feels the former black football star murdered his white wife Nicole.

Many blacks — most importantly, those comprising the majority of the Simpson jury — believe him innocent. Our country’s racial past injects itself into the every present trial. News accounts of Simpson’s trial say the jurors questioned the credibility of the state’s lead detective Mark Fuhrman, who lied about his having used the word “nigger” — a word so odious to blacks that “responsible” whites now refuse to utter it and call it “the ‘N’ word.”

It’s not just the O.J. trial that reflects the stark racial differences in viewpoints, as any attorney practicing in criminal court in the Bronx can testify. Not for nothing do they use the term “Bronx jury” as a head-shaking pejorative.

Not for nothing has the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association forsworn jury trials for cops indicted in the Bronx. Two decades ago when Officer Stephen Sullivan went on trial for fatally shooting Eleanor Bumpers, a black grandmother, he did not appear before a jury. [In the Bronx juries are predominantly black and Hispanic.] Instead, he was tried before a specially selected white judge, who acquitted him.

When a decade later Michael Meyer, a white cop, went on trial in the Bronx for shooting an unarmed black squeegee man, he, too, was tried by a specially selected white judge — who acquitted him.

Is it coincidence that in one of the rare instances in which a white cop — in this case, Mark Conway of the now-disbanded Street Crime Unit — was found guilty in the Bronx in 2001 of shooting an unarmed black teenager, it was a black judge, Troy Webber, who convicted him?

Now let’s turn to the 41-bullet, fatal shooting by four white cops of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant. All the cops were subsequently acquitted. Even the mild-mannered Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson — the city’s only black D.A. and as decent and ego-free a man as any you’ll find — went over the top and charged the four with second-degree murder.

Fast-forward now to the 50-bullet fatal shooting of Sean Bell, another unarmed black man, and the indictments of three cops, Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper, two of whom are black. While whites across the city are praising the indictments and lauding the professionalism of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, many blacks remain skeptical.

A high-ranking police official reflected this latter point of view. “First of all, let’s see what they [the cops] are actually charged with. [We’ll learn that later today. The Times has reported two of the cops have been charged with manslaughter, the third with reckless endangerment.]

“Remember,” the police official continued, “this is only an indictment. If the lesser charge is reckless endangerment, it means a high probability of an acquittal because the state will have a difficult time proving it.

“Second, are the indictments confined only to who shot the unarmed Bell in his car? What about his two passengers who were wounded [Joseph Guzman and Troy Benefield]? Do the indictments speak to them?

“Third, what everyone is missing is the lieutenant, [Gary Napoli]. All this happened under his supervision. He wasn’t charged because he didn’t fire any shots [and reportedly took cover under the dashboard of his car.] Why hasn’t he yet been disciplined? He had no proper attack plan. His officers lacked the proper police equipment to identify themselves — no RAID jackets and no FBI cherry red light on their police vehicle.

 

“Fourth, what about the entire question of supervision? Kelly [Police Commissioner Ray Kelly] has given another contract to the Rand Corporation to investigate ‘contagious shootings.’ But that is not the key issue. The issue is supervision. What steps has the department taken to tighten its controls?”

Printable versionO.K., so what are the reasons blacks and whites see things so differently in these matters? Here are two. First is the lack of black representation at the highest levels of the state’s criminal justice system. This includes the paucity of black judges across the city sitting on criminal trials; the lack of black prosecutors in both United States Attorneys’ offices; and the scarcity of blacks in top judicial positions around the state.

Second is the perception — one held not just by blacks — that the state’s criminal justice system operates in secret, with few rules and with deals and fixes. Yes, those are strong words but lack of transparency yields conspiracy theories. Just look at what happened in the Diallo case.

After the four white cops were indicted in the Bronx, retired Bronx Judge Burton Roberts was hired to convince the First Appellate Department — [the judges who oversee the Bronx and Manhattan] — that the cops could not get a fair trial in the Bronx because of adverse publicity. Roberts succeeded. The trial was moved to Albany, supposedly under the theory that its population had a similar racial mix as the Bronx.

A result — unintended or otherwise — was that State Supreme Court Judge Patricia Williams, the black Bronx judge originally assigned to the case, was removed. Had the trial been transferred to, say, Westchester, a county contiguous with the Bronx, she would have remained. Instead, she was replaced by a white judge, Joseph Teresi. The night the four cops were acquitted, Teresi attended a celebratory party thrown by the PBA. Last year he sat on the dais of the PBA’s annual convention.

Now let’s return to the police department, which also has a scarcity of blacks at its highest levels and which under Kelly has been as closed to public scrutiny as is the state judiciary. This is Kelly’s second undercover screw-up, resulting in a white cop fatally shooting an unarmed black man.

The first victim was Ousmane Zongo, another unarmed African immigrant, fatally shot by officer Bryan Conroy in an undercover raid in a Chelsea warehouse in 2003. At Conroy’s sentencing on Dec. 9, 2005, Manhattan State Supreme Court Judge Robert Straus said, “There were times during the trial when I frankly felt there could be other people sitting at the [defendant’s] table with Mr. Conroy. I think there is shared responsibility here in my view from the testimony at trial.”

The shared responsibility he referred to included that of Conroy’s sergeant, lieutenant, and captain, all of whom made wrong tactical decisions in the raid. The end result left Conroy alone on the warehouse’s third floor, dressed in a mailman’s uniform, with no police identification, where he confronted Zongo. The two apparently mistook each other for robbers, resulting in Zongo’s death.

Only Conroy — and none of his superiors — was charged criminally. Did Kelly then conduct an internal investigation? Were any of Conroy’s supervisors disciplined? If so, Kelly has not announced it. Nor has he announced anything about additional training for the supervisors who so poorly planned and supervised the operation.

Yet there has been no public outcry. Neither the media nor anyone else has sought answers.

The result: another undercover operation in Queens a year later gone awry, another fatal police shooting of another unarmed black man.
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Copyright © 2007 Leonard Levitt