Will Sean Bell’s family get justice?

March 7, 2008

Lucy Herschel reports on the trial of New York police who killed Sean Bell in a hail of bullets.

NEW YORK--The family of Sean Bell is finally seeing the cops who shot their son stand trial.

Bell was killed in a hail of 50 bullets on November 25, 2006, the night before he was to be married to the mother of his two young children. Two of his friends were also critically wounded when undercover police fired on them outside a club where they had been celebrating Bell's bachelor party.

The cops claim they thought one of three had a gun, but no weapon was ever found. Two of the officers--including one who fired 31 times--face manslaughter charges, while a third officer faces charges of reckless endangerment.

For over a year, the Bell family has kept pressure on authorities to hold the cops accountable. The initial months after the shooting saw a wave of protests, including a 40,000-strong march. Supporters organized many smaller protests and boycotts, and the family initiated a 50-day vigil in front of the local police precinct. The family has held vigils at the precinct on the 23rd of each month ever since.

Though unable to convince the governor to appoint a special prosecutor, the family won some important victories, including the indictment of some of the cops and the rejection of the officers' request to move the trial out of New York City.

Dozens of supporters came out February 25 to pack the courtroom and protest in front of the Queens County Courthouse on the first day of the trial. "There is tremendous support from people outside the family, both from the community and different advocacy groups," said Ken Cohen of the NAACP. Cohen said that one eyewitness, a dancer at the club, had been harassed by police until she was forced to move.

The first week of trial saw testimony that countered the cop's version of events and painted the picture of a reckless police operation.

Several witnesses including Lt. Gary Napoli, the head of "Club Initiative" unit involved in the shooting, stated that they did not hear the cops identify themselves or give any commands to Bell and his friends. Napoli also testified that he told his officers earlier that night that the unit was likely to be disbanded soon, and they "needed one more arrest."

"We need to disband these special units, like in the Diallo case, which act like reckless cowboys," said Cohen, referring to the disbanded Street Crimes Unit involved in the 1999 shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo. "We have processed thousands of these cases with the Civilian Complaint Review Board since the last '90s, and they have gone nowhere."

"This case is reduced to what happened that night, when we know that these kinds of cases happen over and over," said Bell family attorney Neville Mitchell. "This case has to do with the disregard and distrust these office have for the communities they police."

Outrageously, one of the defense lawyers played on the theme of racism to claim that it was Bell and his friends who prejudged his client, a Black police officer, as being "Just another Negro with a gun."

Unlike the Diallo trial, which was moved to upstate New York, the family and the community will have ongoing access to the proceedings. Activists plan to continue packing the courtroom and are planning more rallies as the trial continues.

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