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Calls for justice in fatal NYPD shooting

Associated Press | November 27, 2006
DEEPTI HAJELA

 

NEW YORK - An angry crowd shouted "No justice, no peace!" Some called for the ouster of the city's police commissioner. Many counted off to 50, the number of rounds that are estimated to have been fired by police at three unarmed men, killing one on his wedding day.

Several hundred people gathered Sunday for a vigil and rally to demand answers about why officers let fly a flurry of bullets at 23-year-old Sean Bell early Saturday, hours before he was supposed to marry the mother of his two young children.

The five officers were placed on paid administrative leave and stripped of their guns, said Paul Browne, chief spokesman for the NYPD. Police and prosecutors promised a full investigation.

But none of that stemmed the fury of a community outraged by the shootings.

"We cannot allow this to continue to happen," the Rev. Al Sharpton said at the gathering outside Mary Immaculate Hospital, where one of the two wounded men was in critical condition. "We've got to understand that all of us were in that car."

Relatives of the men attended the vigil and rally but none spoke publicly.

Some in the crowd called for the removal of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, yelling "Kelly must go!"

Kelly has said that police shot at the car after it drove forward and struck an undercover officer and an unmarked police minivan. The information was based on interviews with witnesses and two officers who did not fire their weapons, he said.

But a witness account emerged Monday disputing that version of events.

Trini Wright, a dancer at the strip club where Bell's bachelor party was held, told the Daily News she was going to a diner with the men and was putting her makeup bag in the trunk of their car when the police minivan appeared.

"The minivan came around the corner and smashed into their car. And they (the police) jumped out shooting," Wright, 28, told the newspaper for Monday editions. "No 'stop.' No 'freeze.' No nothing."

Kelly had said Saturday the police department was still piecing together what happened and that it was too early to say whether the shooting was justified. He said it was unclear whether the officers, who were in plain clothes, identified themselves before firing.

On Sunday, Browne said, "We are continuing to look for additional witnesses to shed light on the incident and assisting the district attorney's office with its investigation."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly planned to meet with community leaders at City Hall on Monday. Bloomberg and his aides were in contact with Bell's family and community leaders throughout the weekend.

Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre, made a quiet visit to the site of his shootings before dawn Monday, lighting candles clustered around a photograph of the smiling couple with one of their daughters.

The shootings occurred after 4 a.m. Saturday outside the Kalua Cabaret in Queens. Kelly said the incident stemmed from an undercover operation by seven officers investigating the club.

Bell was struck twice. The survivors were Joseph Guzman, 31, who was shot at least 11 times, and Trent Benefield, 23, who was hit three times. Guzman was in critical condition Sunday and Benefield was stable.

The officers' shots struck the men's car 21 times. They also hit nearby homes and shattered windows at a train station, though no residents were injured.

Police thought one of the men in the car might have had a gun, but investigators found no weapons. It was unclear what prompted police to open fire, Kelly said.

According to Kelly, the groom was involved in a verbal dispute outside the club, and one of his friends referred to a gun.

An undercover officer walked closely behind Bell and his friends as they headed for their car. As he walked toward the front of the vehicle, the car drove forward, striking the officer and minivan, Kelly said.

The officer was apparently the first to open fire, Kelly said. He had served on the force for five years. One 12-year veteran fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines, Kelly said.

In total, it is believed 50 bullets were fired, he said. It was the first time any of the officers, all of whom carried 9 mm handguns, had been involved in a shooting, he said.

At some point, Bell backed the car onto a sidewalk, hitting a building gate, police said. He then drove forward, striking the police vehicle a second time, Kelly said.

The police department's policy on shooting at moving vehicles states: "Police officers shall not discharge their firearms at or from a moving vehicle unless deadly force is being used against the police officers or another person present, by means other than a moving vehicle."

The police officers' group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care said it was issuing a vote of no confidence in Kelly over the shooting.

Community leaders planned a rally Dec. 6 at police headquarters.

This isn't the first time the NYPD has come under scrutiny over officer-involved shootings.

In 1999, police killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea in western African who was shot 19 times. The four officers in that case were acquitted of criminal charges. And in 2003, Ousmane Zongo, a native of Burkina Faso in western African, was hit four times, twice in the back.

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