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Ducking For Cover

April 28, 2008

Could police have avoided Sean Bell’s death had the department heeded the lessons of another fatal shooting in 2003?

The department’s flaws in its undercover operations were laid bare when police fatally shot another unarmed man, Ousmane Zongo, in a botched undercover raid on a Chelsea warehouse.

In both operations, higher-ups’ lack of planning and supervision placed cops in potentially dangerous and tragic situations.

In sentencing Bryan Conroy, the cop who fatally shot Zongo, Manhattan State Supreme Court Judge Robert Straus said on Dec. 9, 2005, “There was a time 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 …”

The shared responsibility obviously included others in the NYPD: Conroy’s sergeant, lieutenant and captain, all of whom made wrong tactical decisions. 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.

Now let’s turn to the Bell shooting — another failed undercover operation, another tragedy.

Here, undercover detectives were in a seedy strip club, drinking beer, seeking to document or witness illegal behavior to close the club down. That, at least, was the plan.

Instead, in a series of miscommunications, five police officers fired their weapons a total of 50 times, killing Bell and wounding two of his friends. At least one of the officers mistakenly believed that one of Bell’s friends had a gun.

As bullets flew, lieutenant Gary Napoli ducked for cover beneath the dashboard of his car. He was pilloried, perhaps unfairly, for not properly supervising the raid.

In his decision acquitting detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper, Queens State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Cooperman sounded like Judge Straus in raising misgiving about the NYPD.

“Questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums,” he wrote.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown also noted “significant deficiencies in, among other things, supervision, tactical planning, communications and management accountability — insufficiencies that need to be addressed.”

O.K., let’s back up to Zongo. Did Police Commissioner Ray Kelly conduct an internal investigation following Judge Straus’s remarks about shared responsibility? Were any of Conroy’s supervisors dismissed, disciplined or retrained because of their poorly planned and poorly supervised operation? If they were, the public has been kept in the dark about it.

Contrary to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s promises, the police department under Kelly has less transparency than the darkest Giuliani days. Under Kelly, all power resides in the police commissioner. Bloomberg has permitted him to become the most powerful commissioner in the city’s history, with no civilian oversight.

“One voice,” is the mantra of the public information office. That voice is Kelly’s.

Kelly is so all-powerful that he has neutered his commanders. None of his subordinates can make a decision without his approval. With rare exceptions, only Kelly speaks at news conferences. His commanders beside him stand still and silent as statues.

Take poor Chief of Department Joseph Esposito, the NYPD’s highest uniformed officer. Kelly undercuts him by dealing with his subordinates. At news conferences, Espo stands at Kelly’s side, but is rarely allowed to open his mouth.

There is, of course, a downside to this: you can’t turn your commanders into wimps and expect them to be leaders. The result is a ducking of responsibility.

At the same time, the entire city remains both intimidated and enamored of Kelly because crime remains low and New York has not suffered another terrorist attack. No doubt that explains the vapid newspaper editorials praising him after the Bell shooting for his so-called reforms.

One of these required breathalyzer tests of cops who fire their weapons and hit someone. What sense would that make in the Bell case when the undercovers were permitted to drink inside the Club Kalua?

Another was the Rand Corporation’s examination of so-called “contagious shooting,” following the 50-bullet Bell barrage. Is there some genius inside Rand who knows more about contagious shooting than officers of the NYPD?

In fact, Kelly himself is pretty good at ducking.

Remember the fatal shooting of Timothy Stansbury, a black teenager, on the rooftop of his apartment building in 2004? Kelly’s first reaction — 12 hours after the shooting, before the NYPD had completed its investigation — was to call the shooting “not justified” according department guidelines.

The newspapers praised his so-called candor while law enforcement officials throughout the city and beyond were aghast because Kelly’s remarks were interpreted as tantamount to finding the officer guilty. One former NYPD official said, “While I understand what he was saying, and in a certain context he is correct, the starkness of the word doesn’t take into consideration the possibility of an accidental shooting, which it probably was.”

That is what a Brooklyn grand jury concluded. The cop, Richard Neri, was not indicted. Significantly it was Bloomberg who expressed outrage when Bell was shot. Kelly kept his yap shut.

On Saturday, the day after the acquittal, the Daily News called for the dismissal of the three detectives. “Proceedings must begin,” the News opined, “to dismiss Oliver, Isnora and Cooper from the NYPD along with the supervisors who let the detectives’ undercover operation run amok…”

We all know Harry Truman’s saying: The Buck Stops Here. Not in the NYPD. If it did, you know whose head would roll.

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Copyright © 2008 Leonard Levitt