The Sean Bell Case

May 7, 2008

NYC police were found not guity in the shooting of an unarmed young man, setting off protests. Three student readings explore conflicting accounts of the shooting, reactions to the verdict, and opinions from differing perspectives. Suggestions for discussion, inquiry and a "constructive controversy" exercise follow.

Sean Bell died in a hail of 50 police bullets. Two of Bell's friends in a car with him were wounded, one very seriously. All three men were African-American. Police said they acted on the incorrect assumption that the men were armed and threatening them. Their misjudgment, overreaction, and brutality immediately became an issue. But it was tempered as people learned that two of the detectives who shot Bell were also African-American. In April 2008, the detectives were declared not guilty. However, the case continues to be the subject of police and federal investigations.

The first student reading below provides an overview of the case and conflicting accounts of exactly what happened; the second includes official and community reactions, and an outline of the trial and its verdict; the third offers opinions from differing perspectives.

Discussion questions follow along with subjects for possible further inquiry and a set of instructions for conducting a "Constructive Controversy" on the Bell case.

 


Student Reading l:

The Shootings

Time: About 4:15 a.m., November 25, 2006
Place: Kalua Cabaret, South Jamaica, New York

In the early morning hours of November 25, 2006, Sean Bell and two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, all African-Americans, were just leaving a strip club after a bachelor party to celebrate Bell's marriage scheduled for later that day. A dozen police officers had the Kalua Cabaret under surveillance because of frequent reports of drug sales and prostitution there.

What happened next came faster than words can tell. Bell and friends got in their car and began to drive off, bumping a man in front of the vehicle. After bumping the man, Bell's car turned a corner, struck a minivan, backed into a storefront gate, shot forward into the minivan again and finally stopped in a hail of 50 bullets.

Some reports said a fourth man was with them and disappeared before the car drove off.

The man in front of the Bell car was Detective Gescard Isnora. In the minivan hit by Bell's car was a group of back-up police officers. Five officers fired the 50 bullets into the Bell car. Detective Isnora made 11 of the shots and Detective Marc Cooper made 4. Both men are African-American. Detective Michael Oliver, who is white, fired 31 times—which required him to reload. Different police officers in the area fired the remaining four shots. Detective Oliver had made 600 arrests in a 12-year career and had never fired a shot before. Neither had Detective Isnora.

Bell, 23, was struck four times and died soon after. Joseph Guzman was hit 16 times and survived with permanent injuries. Trent Benefield, with three wounds, was hurt less severely.

Bell and his friends fired no shots from the car. Nobody in it had a gun. However, alcohol tests determined that Bell was legally drunk.

Different stories

There were conflicting stories later about exactly what happened and why.

Some witnesses said the Bell group was leaving the club when an argument erupted between them and another customer, and a fight seemed likely.

Detective Isnora later said he saw and heard Joseph Guzman in an argument with the customer, then heard Bell say they should beat the man up. He said he heard Guzman yell twice, "Yo, go get my gun." The Bell group got in the car. Detective Isnora, in plain clothes, said he wore a badge on his collar and, standing in front of the car, yelled, "Police" at Bell and his friends.

But Guzman said he saw no police ID, and both Benefield and he said they did not hear any police warning. Bell, his two friends said, thought they were being carjacked, and that's why he took off. Benefield said he saw a man standing in front of the car pointing a pistol at Bell. Guzman yelled, "Let's get out of here." Two seconds later the man shot Bell. Benefield, sitting in the back, was also hit, but got out of the car to run and was hit again.

The detectives denied that they had shot him again. Detective Isnora said he thought he saw through the car windshield that Guzman was reaching into the waistband of his pants, quite possibly for a gun.

New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer wrote: "None of the police vehicles were marked. None used their lights and sirens. None of the officers wore raid jackets, which clearly identify a police officer. Now, the Police Department says it requires that undercover supervisors have megaphones and portable light kits in their cars, and that they inspect the members of their team to make sure they have their equipment. Soon, the department will issue new raid jackets." (Jim Dwyer, "Fatally Flawed Police Work, But Not Criminal, " New York Times, 4/25/08)

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How would you explain why the detectives fired so many shots, especially Detective Oliver? How would you explain why Bell drove off, hitting a man and then careening into vehicles?

3. How would you explain the conflicting stories of those involved in the shooting?

4. Whose story seems most accurate to you and why?

 


Student Reading 2:

The Trial

Questions and reactions

The shootings at the Kalua Cabaret immediately became major controversial news in New York City. Was it another example of the police using excessive force against African-Americans? Or did the police respond responsibly, even if mistakenly? Both Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that it was too early to make any judgment.

But friends and relatives of Sean Bell, as well as his distraught fiancee, Nicole Paultre and mother of their two daughters, thought differently. In honor of him, she later changed her name legally to Paultre-Bell. Civil rights leader Al Sharpton called the shootings "a shocking case." But he said later, "Two of the officers are black. So this is not just race here. This is about policeman's conduct." ( New York Magazine , 2/24/08) City newspapers and TV news channels recalled the 1999 case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, who was killed mistakenly when police officers fired 41 shots at him as he entered the vestibule of his apartment house.

Mayor Bloomberg soon decided that the police had used "excessive force" and found their behavior "unacceptable and inexplicable." He met with black leaders as well as with the Bell family and praised the latter for the constructive way in which they expressed their outrage. But accusations of aggressive police tactics and racial profiling continued.

Responding to accusations of police aggressiveness and brutality in black neighborhoods, Police Commissioner Kelly pointed out that in the past five years the police force had gone from being 65% white to 55%. He noted that more than half of the people checked by the stop-and-frisk law were black. But, he said, black residents want a strong police presence in their neighborhoods even as they express discomfort with it. "They want crime to go down, but they don't want to be stopped and they don't want their sons to be stopped. So it's a challenge." ( New York Times , 3/21/07)

The indictments and trial

Detectives Oliver and Isnora were indicted on felony charges of first degree manslaughter for killing Bell and causing injury to Guzman, and of assault charges for injuring Benefield. Misdemeanor charges against these two detectives and Detective Cooper included reckless endangerment for firing their pistols on a street where others were present and firing bullets that went through the window of an occupied apartment and through the nearby AirTrain station.

Any defendant in New York State has the right to waive a jury trial and instead have the presiding judge hear testimony and deliver the verdict. The defendants and their lawyers decided on this procedure. They also decided not to have the detectives take the witness stand in their own defense. Instead, they relied on a reading of the detectives' grand jury testimony last year. Fifty prosecution witnesses took the stand.

After a 7-week trial, the prosecution and the defense made closing statements.

The prosecution

Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa accused the detectives of lying to cover up shooting unarmed men as trapped and exposed as "a big barrel of fish." Of Detective Oliver, he said, "Two full magazines poured into a motionless vehicle of unarmed passengers speaks of rage."

"This, more than any other case in memory, is one that most people view through the prism of their prejudices. If you are a police officer or sympathetic to police officers, the defendants are tragic heroes and the victims are thugs. If you are friends of the victims, then the defendants are murderers. The truth lies somewhere between the polar extremes."

The defense

In defense of Detective Oliver: Evidence showed the shooting began only after Bell rammed a police van twice.

In defense of Detective Isnora: The terrible chain of events began because Detective Isnora was seen only as a black man with a gun. His client was a "hero" for restraining himself before firing. "He's a decent, dignified, graceful young man, and he did his job as best he could."

In defense of Detective Cooper: "The detective fired his pistol only because he thought himself under fire. Convicting him of reckless endangerment sends the wrong message to police officers. What they're saying is, 'Don't take your gun out until you go out in the country. 'Next time you're dead. That's what they're asking for."

The verdict

On April 25, 2008, exactly 17 months after the Kalua Cabaret shootings, Queens Judge Arthur Cooperman acquitted the three detectives, saying they had reason to believe they were threatened by a gun. He made the following comments:

It was necessary to consider the mind-set of each defendant at the time and place of the occurrence and not the mind-set of the victims.  Also carelessness and incompetence are not standards to be applied here, unless the conduct rises to the level of criminal acts" (which the judge did not think they did). The judge found "inconsistencies" in the testimony of prosecution witnesses. Some, he said, referring to Nicole Paultre-Bell, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who have sued the City for $50 million, had a special "interest in the outcome of the case." The judge also found "aspects of the defense testimony that were not necessarily credible."

The aftermath

The United States Justice Department announced it would make its own investigation of the incident and "will take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes." Police Commissioner Kelly said an internal departmental investigation into the shooting would be held up at the request of federal authorities. The suit against the City by Paultre-Bell, Guzman, and Benefield will proceed.

In the meantime, the three acquitted officers and three other officers who were involved in the Club Kalua shooting have been assigned to desk jobs and will work indefinitely without their badges and guns.

Civil rights activists demonstrated against the verdict. They called for a permanent state-level prosecutor to handle cases of police brutality.

 

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are your answers to the two questions at the beginning of the reading?

3. What is "racial profiling"?

4. Do you agree with Al Sharpton? Why or why not?

5. What "challenge" is Commissioner Kelly talking about? Put the shoe on the other foot and consider what the commissioner might say if he lived in a neighborhood where police "stopped" him or his family members often and without apparent reason.

6. Why do you suppose the detectives did not testify in their own defense?

7. Testagrossa emphasizes police "rage" but sees the truth as being "between polar extremes." How do you evaluate his viewpoint?

8. Evaluate the conclusions of Detective Cooper's lawyer.

9. Judge Cooperman considers the mind-set of each defendant but not the mind-set of each victim. Does this seem justified to you? Why or why not?

10. The judge also criticizes the detectives for "carelessness and incompetence" but does not think they rise to the level of criminal behavior. Do you agree? Why or why not?

11. Why do you suppose that Judge Cooperman viewed the testimony of Nicole Paultre-Bell, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield as unreliable and viewed the testimony of those supporting the detectives' version of what happened as more reliable? Do you think this judgment was reasonable? Why or why not?

 


Student Reading 3:

Opinions
 

The Fear Behind the Badge

"There were plenty of times during my 20-year police career when I was afraid. Usually it was when I couldn't clearly see a potential suspect and didn't know if he had a weapon. For a police officer, if a suspect is ignoring your commands and you can't see his hands, you will feel that your life is in danger.

"This was the situation that faced the police detectives who shot and killed Sean Bell outside the Club Kalua. So I'm glad that on Friday, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman was able to navigate through the rhetoric of the prosecution and acquit [all the detectives].

"Since no gun was found in the vehicle, it is clear that the police officers made a tragic mistake. When police officers are cleared of charges in a tragedy like the Bell shooting critics will look elsewhere to assign blame. A common claim is that if the officers aren't to blame, the fault must lie in their training. This is nonsense.

"Trust me: training can instill good habits and safe tactics, but you can't control the level of fear, or the individual choice that a person makes about when to pull that trigger. In that position, an officer has seconds to make a life-altering decision: Is my life in imminent danger? How to answer that question can't be taught in a classroom."

—Kyle Murphy, op-ed in the New York Times , 4/27/08

 

For discussion

1. What does Kyle Murphy emphasize as key to understanding police behavior and why?

2. What does he say can't be taught in a classroom and why not? Do you agree? Why or why not?

 


Verdict in Bell Shooting Is No Big Surprise

"When cops go on trial for overuse of deadly force, their victims are generally young blacks and Latinos. The attorneys that defend them are top gun defense attorneys and have had much experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. Police unions pay them and they spare no expense.

"Prosecutors have a big task in trying to overcome pro-police attitudes and the negative racial stereotypes. Two Penn State University studies on racial perceptions and stereotypes found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crimes. Defense attorneys played hard on that perception and depicted Bell and his companions as thugs and drunkards who posed a threat to officers."

Typically, defense attorneys emphasize that the police had good reasons to be afraid of being shot. "In the Bell case, the officer's attorneys argued that the officers feared for their lives when they fired. Gescard Isnora said he thought one of the suspects had a gun, made a suspicious move, and that the car they were in bumped him. Isnora did not take the stand during the trial and say that. But fellow officer Michael Carey did and testified that the officers shouted warnings before blazing away at the unarmed Bell.

"The code of silence is another powerful obstacle to convicting cops charged with crimes. Officers hide behind it and refuse to testify against other officers or tailor their testimony to put the officer's action in the best possible light. Nailing cops for bad shootings is virtually impossible for even the most diligent prosecutor. The Bell case again proved that to be the case."

—Earl Ofari Hutchinson, www.alternet.org, 4/28/08
 

For discussion

1. What are major elements in Hutchinson's view that the verdict is no surprise? What is your view of each and why?

2. What possible explanations are there for Officer Carey's supporting Detective Isnora's grand jury testimony? Which explanation seems most likely to you and why?

3. Do you think racial stereotypes play a role in a trial like that of the detectives? Why or why not?
 


Judge Did the Best Job He Could

"The judge, I believe, tried to make the best decision he could based on the facts in the construct of the law. I understand why people would be surprised, frustrated, disappointed by this decision. I didn't sit in the courtroom. I didn't hear the 900 pieces of evidence. I didn't weigh all the facts beyond a reasonable doubt. He did the best job he could in the constructs of the law."

—Christine Quinn, Speaker, New York City Council

For discussion

1. What does Quinn mean by "the constructs of the law"?

2. How, in her view, do they support the judge's verdict?
 


Trained To Do Our Dirty Work

"Americans insist on 'Control' of street crime. Politicians at every level echo that call and no one really protests. Not the media. Not civic leaders. Not even the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We send our police out to fight a war on drugs and a war on crime. We send them far away from our comfortable neighborhoods, to places we don't understand to preserve our lives and our lifestyles. We send them out with no political support for efforts to win the hearts and minds of the inner-city population. We send these cops out without caring at all about the people of the areas we send them to. We want the threat to disappear."

—Ira Socol, a former NYC police officer, op-ed New York Times, 5/2/92

For discussion

1. According to Socol, what is the most important consideration for Americans in combating street crime? How does this consideration affect trials like that of the detectives in the Bell case?

2. Do you agree that most Americans don't care "at all about the people of the areas we send them [the police] to"? Why or why not?

 


Writing

A well-known saying declares: "We see things not as they are, but as we are." In a well-developed paper with a beginning, middle and conclusion, discuss this statement in relation to any aspects of the Bell case that seem appropriate to you.
 


Inquiry

There have been many trials over the controversial treatment of people of color by police officers. Choose one of the following or another for investigation.

1. Adolph Archie, New Orleans, 1990
2. Rodney King, Los Angeles, 1991
3. Abner Louima, New York City, 1997
4. Amadou Diallo, New York City, 1999
 


Constructive Controversy
 

Constructive Controversy, a procedure developed by David and Roger Johnson, is similar in some respects to the debate model. While somewhat mechanistic, it aims to develop a range of skills, cooperative group work, and a familiarity with diverse points of view on a controversial issue.

1. Question for investigation: Did Judge Cooperman make the right decision? Why or why not?

2. Divide the class into groups of four and assign pairs within each group to take opposite positions.

3. Each group has the common goal of reaching a group consensus and presenting a group report after all differences of opinion have been thoroughly explored.

4. Discuss the necessary collaborative skills:

  • active listening skills, particularly paraphrasing and summarizing another's
    position
  • being able to disagree with ideas while confirming the competence of those
    holding them
  • consensus-achieving skills, such as building on others' ideas
     

Steps in constructive controversy

1. Pairs study: In each group, one pair studies arguments in support of Cooperman's decision, the other pair studies arguments against it. Both sides gather facts and prepare arguments. They may consult with pairs from other teams. A great deal of information is available online.

2. Pairs present: Within each group, each pair presents its case while the others listen, except for clarifying questions.

3. Pairs challenge: Within each group, each pair challenges the other side's arguments and presents the strongest case it can for the opposite side of the argument.

4. Pairs switch: Each side now takes the opposite side of the argument from the one it took originally, prepares a new set of arguments and presents the strongest case it can.

5. Group discussion: Now each group most work together to decide which arguments are most valid from both sides. They will seek a statement, resolution, or synthesis that incorporates the best thinking of the group as a whole.

6. Group report: The group prepares a written or oral report for presentation to the class as a whole. If no agreement can be reached, prepare a minority report as well, and/or a report on areas of agreement and areas of continuing disagreement.
 

Assessment

  • Process or reflect on what was learned, in terms of both content and group skills.
  • Give special recognition to examples of creative synthesis of opposing positions.
  • Have students set goals for improving their process next time.

 

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org