Experts say Mayor Bloomberg spoke to soon in calling NYPD shooting 'excessive force'

Wednesday, November 29th 2006, 6:24 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Law enforcement experts contend New York City's mayor spoke prematurely in saying police used ``excessive force'' in unleashing a 50-shot barrage that killed an unarmed man outside a strip club.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg labeled the shooting ``unacceptable'' and ``inexplicable'' while meeting Monday with community leaders and the victim's family.

But experts who have studied the use of deadly force by police say the confusing circumstances of the incident suggest the mayor's conclusions are premature. The amount of firepower, they add, has been given too much emphasis.

``The number of shots fired doesn't mean anything, even though it seems a little shocking,'' Jim Cohen, a professor of criminal law at Fordham Law School, said Tuesday. ``We simply don't have enough information to draw any conclusions.''

The five shooters _ four detectives and one police officer _ have been placed on administrative leave during an investigation into the death of 23-year-old Sean Bell.

``We're going to be forced to look at this through their eyes,'' said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. ``Short of hearing what they have to say, we don't know much.''

Most of the shooters have remained silent, though lawyers and union officials have said at least some of them are eager to tell their side of the story to a grand jury.

The undercover detective who was the first to open fire has made a statement through his lawyer, according to a report published Wednesday.

Attorney Philip Karasyk told the Daily News that the detective, whose name was withheld, says he identified himself as a police officer and initially held his fire, even after being clipped by Bell's car.

The gunfire on Saturday morning stemmed from an undercover operation inside the club, where a team of officers in plain clothes was investigating alleged prostitution and drug use.

Police said that Bell, who was to be married that day, was involved in an argument outside the club after 4 a.m., and that one of his friends made a reference to a gun.

The detective who was the first to open fire followed Bell and his friends as they headed for their car. As he walked toward the front of the vehicle, they drove forward _ bumping him and then crashing into an undercover police minivan, police said.

After the detective fired, the others joined in, police said.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg went to the Queens church frequented by the Bell family, where he met for about an hour with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the parents and fiancee of the groom.

The mayor said he stands by his earlier comments about the shooting.

``I am a civilian. I am not a professional law enforcement officer,'' he said. ``I used the word excessive and that's fine. That was my personal opinion.''

Bloomberg has said the shooters appeared to have violated the policy stating that officers cannot shoot at a vehicle being used as a weapon if no other deadly force is involved.

But Maki Haberfeld, another John Jay professor and specialist in the use of deadly force, said she believes that ``if the officer was struck by the car on purpose, to me the shooting was justified.''

Police officials on Tuesday said that detectives had located a new witness who apparently saw the officers open fire. They also were trying to identify more potential witnesses by studying video recorded by a security camera at the entrance of Kalua Cabaret in Queens.

Also missing are the accounts of two key witnesses: Men who were partying at the club with Bell on the eve of his wedding before getting caught in the hail of gunfire aimed at the groom's car. Joseph Guzman, 31, shot at least 11 times, and Trent Benefield, 23, hit three times, have remained hospitalized.