“It’s a Witch Hunt, They Have No Evidence”–Father of Man Arrested in NYPD Dragnet over Sean Bell Shooting

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A major march is planned for Saturday to protest the death of Sean Bell—the man gunned down in a hail of 50 police bullets. We speak with Bishop Erskine Williams, whose son was rounded up in the days after the Bell shooting on a $25 summons, questioned and threatened by police. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now joined by Bishop Erskine Williams. He’s bishop of the New Seasons Family Worship Center and pastor for the Benefield and Guzman families. He, himself, had his own sons rounded up in the days after the Bell shooting. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: As you watched this video for the first time, what were your thoughts?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: It’s reprehensible, appalling, disgusting to see that if an incident occurred on the ground, why are shots being fired overhead, which somewhat gives me to understand — at the meeting that we had at City Hall with the mayor and the police commissioner, Police Commissioner Kelly made mention of the fact that this particular unit is allowed to have two drinks on the job. And I raised the issue, who is monitoring the fact, whether they have two drinks or 10 drinks? Who is to say it’s beer, as opposed to vodka? It would leave one to believe that they may have been inebriated. If they’re trained to shoot at a target — it wasn’t overhead — so there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, could you talk about the experiences that have occurred with your own sons, because I think one of the big criticisms of many leaders in the black community is that even subsequent to the shooting, which itself is still to be fully explained, there has been a dragnet in southeast Queens by the police, picking up young black men and trying to question them about what they know about any of the individuals who have been the victims of this attack.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Sure. My son Erskine Jr. happens to be friends with Trent Benefield, Joseph Guzman and now-deceased Sean Bell. And the police officers are aware of that fact, that he knows them. So on the morning of November 30 at 6:00 a.m., they came to my home under false pretense, supposedly saying that my son Erskine Jr. had an outstanding unpaid $25 summons. That was the impetus for them taking him, we thought, to the precinct, but later on we came to realize that they didn’t take him to the precinct at all. They held him in our parking lot, where we live at, from 6:30 in the morning until 8:00 a.m., questioning him about the shooting.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he try to call you at this time?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: No, they didn’t give him nothing. They just kept him in the car.

AMY GOODMAN: Have a lawyer?


AMY GOODMAN: And what were they questioning him about?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: What he knew about the shooting. Did he know of a fourth man? Could he possibly be the fourth man?

AMY GOODMAN: Was he at the party, at the bachelor party?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: No, no. He was at home that night.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you wondering where he was?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Yes. We made several attempts to find out where he was at. We called the 113th Precinct to no avail. We called the 103rd Precinct to no avail and the 105th Precinct to no avail. Hence, later on we found out, after he called me about 2:00 that day, saying they released him, he explained that when they finally took him to the 103rd Precinct, when he was being questioned upstairs, a detective said to him, “Do you see that guy sitting next to you, how big his hands is? He’ll put your f***in’ head through that wall if you don’t tell us what we want to know.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And there had been other people. In fact, there was actually a raid by police at 6:00 a.m. the previous morning in the same building, wasn’t there?


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about that? What happened there?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Well, what happened was they said they had a tip from somebody, there were some drugs or something in the building. They’re trying to build a case. They said that they had found a weapon and a small quantity of narcotics. Because they said there was a weapon that was supposedly involved in this incident, they’re looking for everything. I think it’s a witch hunt. I think they have, at best, no evidence. It’s a tenuous case that they have right now, so they’re doing what they can to try to build the case.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you also had an opportunity to talk to the two survivors of the shooting, the wounded men, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. And what have they been — I know their lawyers have said it, but if you could summarize for those of our listeners and viewers who haven’t been following the case that closely, especially those in other parts of the country, what have the two survivors said happened to them that night?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Well, they said that they were leaving the club, going to have breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

AMY GOODMAN: This is around 4:00 a.m.?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Four a.m. in the morning. And they said once they got in the car, they said the police officer, which was a black man who came to the front of their vehicle with his weapon pointed at them, never identifying himself, with no badge displayed.

AMY GOODMAN: No uniform.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: No uniform. Plainclothes cop. They thought it was a carjacking of some sort. That explains why Sean panicked and was trying to get away from the man with a weapon.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And as he drives out, one of the police vehicles, the van, is turning the corner rapidly in the oncoming lane.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And they collide.


JUAN GONZALEZ: They collide as he’s pulling out of his parking spot.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Well, that’s what we were told. That’s the truth of the matter. But the way the police officers are trying to make it sound like, that Sean ran into them.

AMY GOODMAN: Makes it sound like he hit a police officer knowingly and then the police car.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Right. But the hitting a police officer never happened. Trent was in the car, Joseph was in the car. And I spoke to both of them. They said that never occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Well, Joseph recounted to us how, when he was in the car with Sean, who was driving, once Sean was hit in his neck by a bullet, and he was bleeding profusely, his last words were, when he looked at Joe, he said, “Joe, I love you.” And Joseph leaned over and grabbed him and said, “I love you, too, man.” And Sean leaned back and died.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Trent Benefield, who was in the back seat, actually was able to get out of the car, and trying to run away from the shooting, he actually fell at the end of the block of Liverpool Street on 95th Avenue.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Exactly. Just what you made mention of, Joseph said that that’s what saved his life. Had it not been for Trent running from the vehicle, the police officers would have kept their weapons trained on him, and he would probably be dead. But he said once Trent ran from the vehicle, the cops directed their attention toward Trent, and that saved Joseph’s life, even though he was shot 17 times and have 19 holes in his body.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read you a key part of the New York Times article on whether Sean Bell knew the undercover officers were actually police. It says, “Lieutenant Napoli’s account makes clear he believes the men in Mr. Bell’s car knew he was a police officer because he had made eye contact with one of them. The report says Lieutenant Napoli could not articulate why he believed that. Lawyers representing Mr. Guzman and Mr. Benefield have declared that they had no idea the men they encountered that night on Liverpool Street were the police.”

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: From what seems to have occurred regarding this Lieutenant Napoli, he don’t have a clue what went on. He panicked when he heard gunshot. He thought he was being fired upon by them, and it was his own people that were shooting weapons. He don’t know what happened. So his word has no real value.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to go to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion. We’re speaking with Bishop Erskine Williams, bishop of the New Seasons Family Worship Center and pastor to both the Benefield and Guzman families. His church, too, in Jamaica, Queens, not far from the nightclub where Sean Bell was gunned down. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Wyclef Jean singing “Diallo,” referring to Amadou Diallo, who was gunned down by police, died in a hail of 41 bullets on February 4, 1999. When I went to the funeral of Sean Bell in Jamaica, Queens, following the casket was Amadou Diallo’s mother Kadiatou Diallo, among other parents, family members of those killed by police in New York. I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez.

We’ve just broadcast exclusive footage, first-time Port Authority footage that Juan Gonzalez obtained of the Air Train, known as the train to the plane, the Port Authority train to Kennedy Airport, that showed that an errant bullet from the hail of 50 police bullets that ultimately killed Sean Bell hit the train tracks above, sending police and passengers scurrying, diving for cover.

Bishop Erskine Williams is with us. His two sons were picked up in the days after the police shooting in police raids. As the mayor — and you met with the mayor, Bishop Williams — was saying excessive force was used, at the same time these raids are taking place, not getting the same kind of coverage. Now, on the issue of the police that night — that morning that Trent Benefield, Joseph Guzman, Sean Bell did not realize were police, explain what happened. Sean Bell, was he handcuffed even as he was near death, when he was being put into the ambulance?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Bishop Lester Williams shared with us, when they went to Jamaica Hospital, that Sean Bell was in handcuffs. I didn’t see Sean Bell, because I didn’t go that direction. Trent Benefield happens to live three or four doors from where I live, so he’s my neighbor. Upon learning of the shooting through my son Saturday morning, I got up to see if I could be of any assistance to the family. So I took his mother Denise, his grandmother and his aunt to the hospital to see him.

We were there at Mary Immaculate Hospital for approximately an hour and a half before they let us upstairs. And I grew weary, and I asked Mr. Rubenstein, Sanford Rubenstein, “Why are we sitting here in this conference room if I came to pray for Trent and Joseph?” So he said, “I don’t know. You have to ask the detectives.” And I went out and questioned one. I showed him my credentials. “Why am I standing downstairs, and they’re upstairs?” And he said, “Well, you have to speak to the inspector, because I think that he’s being questioned.” I said, “Without an attorney?” And he said, “Well, the inspector,” who was Inspector Pearson, “talked to me and said, well, we’ll take you upstairs.” I said, 'You all have already broke the law by virtue of this shooting. Now you're adding insult to injury questioning him without an attorney?”

So at that point, we were allowed to go upstairs: Rev. Al Sharpton, myself, Trent’s mother and his grandmother. That’s when we beheld Trent laying in the bed with handcuffs on his ankles and his hands. And I became irate, and I said to Inspector Pearson, “Where the hell do you think he’s going? What do you think he’s going to do? Why is he cuffed to the bed?” So he said, “Well, it’s departmental policy when we think there was a gun involved.” I said, “Do yourself a favor: Leave the handcuffs on, because I’d like Councilmember Tom White to see these handcuffs.” Within five to seven minutes, the cuffs disappeared.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And it is clear, because I’ve reviewed a copy of the internal police report, that they did question Benefield that night in the hospital, and that he basically said to the police then the exact same thing that we’ve heard from his lawyers since then, that they had no idea that they were police, that a strange man came up to them with a gun, they tried to get away. He believes that they hit several cars, as they were backing back and forth to try to get out of the situation. So his story then was the same story he has told ever since then.

You know, but the other thing about this is there were other witnesses there. There was a young woman who was one of the people who worked in the bar, by the name of Trini, who also spoke to police. And she said that, in her testimony to the police, that she saw a van coming around the corner, hit Sean Bell’s car, and immediately after that, an officer from that van came out and began shooting. Now, she does not say in her testimony that it was another person, another individual on the street. She says that the shooting started from the person in the van.

And, of course, there are several other friends of Sean Bell who were in the bachelor party who were walking to their cars, as well, that night, who — about a total of five witnesses that a lawyer, Charlie King, is representing, who have all seen parts of what happened that night. And several of them have been picked up by police in an attempt to find out what they know, and including the person who was wrongly identified as the, quote, “fourth man.”


JUAN GONZALEZ: Gene Nelson. And Gene Nelson was at the scene, was a witness, was willing to cooperate, and my understanding is, in talking to Charlie King, that he was picked up by the police —

AMY GOODMAN: This is the attorney who ran for office.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, the attorney who ran for state attorney general just this year in the Democratic primary — that Charlie King says that he was on a cellphone with Gene Nelson a couple of weeks ago, when police picked him up on the street, picked Nelson up on the street, and that Charlie got on the phone with the police officer, said, “I am the attorney for Gene Nelson. Why are you picking him up?” And the police officer said, “I don’t have to tell you that. I have my orders. We’re taking him in.” And he told him on the cell phone, “You are not to question him until I am there, because I am his attorney.” And, of course, they proceeded to question him about the incident, what he knew. They held him for a couple of hours. And police officials later said that Gene Nelson had gone with them willingly to discuss the matter, and that as soon as the lawyer informed them, that they let him go. So there are all kinds of contradictions in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Mayor Bloomberg for one moment, a clip of what he had to say after the shooting.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Nobody takes this more seriously than Commissioner Kelly and I do. We are both very proud of our police department and the officers that work there. But I can’t tell you that every time everyone does the right thing. And whether they did the right thing or not this time, it sounds to me like excessive force was used, but that’s up to the district attorney to find out. And I do not want to prejudice their investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a Mayor Bloomberg. Bishop Williams, your response?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Well, I think that he was being fair in his assessment that the shooting was excessive. Anytime you have one police officer, namely this Mike Oliver that fired a 31 shots —- it was mentioned to us in the police commissioner’s statements at the meeting at the mayor’s office, that when they are trained, they are supposed to fire three rounds, assess the situation, fire three more rounds. That would say to me that he had to stop ten times during this barrage of 31 shots, which we know didn’t happen. Mike Oliver shooting 31 shots said to me clearly -—

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Oliver was, of the five officers, the white officer?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Right. And that’s the racial element involved. A number of people are trying to say it’s not race-related, and I beg to differ, because when you have three black men in a car and a white cop that discharges his weapon 31 times, and he has to stop at some point, discharge a magazine and load another magazine in, the second magazine says to me there was an intent to execute and assassinate.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, interestingly, the official police report, again that I’ve obtained a copy of and was able to review, shows that when the first police sergeant, Sergeant Wheeler, arrived on the scene, and he had to question all of the officers as to whether they fired their guns, and Oliver actually said that he did not recall whether he had fired his gun, even though he’s the only one who actually reloaded, emptied a magazine, reloaded and fired again. But he supposedly told the arriving sergeant on the scene, “I don’t recall if I fired my gun.”

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: In one of the many meetings I was in, it was mentioned to us by one law enforcement person that what was introduced into this whole scenario is that Mike Oliver is nine months out of Iraq, so that might have attributed to him being trigger-happy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and again, until we have the facts, we don’t know if there was any real justification of whether they thought they saw a gun, and it is a difficult situation for police officers often on the street, but definitely 31 shots from one officer versus the remaining 19 shots from the other four shows that that particular officer certainly did the most damage in the shooting involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the climate right now in Jamaica. I want to play a clip of Reverend Al Sharpton talking about people’s feelings. This is soon after the shooting.

REV. AL SHARPTON: At what point do you continue to fire, even reload, and not realize that no one is shooting at you? And to say that one gun causes an atmosphere where you keep shooting is to tell me that everyone that was sitting in that room, that if one policeman makes a mistake, you could be subjected innocently to what could amount to a firing squad. That is no way to run a city. And that is no way to give comfort.

We said to the mayor, we understand the crime problem. We understand because many of our communities have the worst crime problems. But imagine, Mr. Mayor, living in a city where you have to live with the fear of the cops and the robbers. Some in the city worry about the robbers. We have to worry about both. And that was the appeal that we made.

This mayor has better manners than his predecessor. Let’s see if we have better policy. We prefer talking than not talking, but the object is not a conversation, the object is fairness and justice. So, is it better that he met than Giuliani didn’t? Let’s see what the results are, because we’re not just interested in being treated politely, we’re interested in being treated fairly and rightly, and that will happen when police are held as accountable as anyone else.

Lastly, there are those that are calling for peace and calm. The presence of peace is justice. Many are not calling for peace, they’re calling for quiet. They want us to shut up and suffer in silence. If you want peace, you give justice. You don’t tell people to shut up when they’re hurting. You find out their pain, and you resolve the pain. And people wouldn’t be hollering if they weren’t in pain.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Al Sharpton speaking outside City Hall. Bishop Erskine Williams, there is a major march planned for Saturday, December 16. It’s actually the fourth birthday of Jada, the older daughter of Sean Bell and Nicole Paultre — Sean, of course, who died in that hail of police bullets. You both, actually Juan, as well, were at the 1199 meeting at the union hall of leaders planning this.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: I think the Reverend Al Sharpton, as always, is doing a very commendable job. Had it not been for him, the morning that the police officers invaded my home, 6:00 in the morning — he put me in touch with Charlie King, and Councilman Thomas White’s office was very helpful. And Senator Malcolm Smith worked very, very valiantly in getting my son released. Reverend Sharpton is doing a tremendous job in getting attention where it’s deserved, when police officers are a law unto themselves. I believe for the most part, by and large, there’s a lot of honest and decent police officers, but there is a culture within the culture that seems like they do what they feel like doing. And that’s why we have this death unnecessarily.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the things the department has been saying quite a bit is that the actual number of shootings by police and the number of bullets used in shootings has been going steadily down. But at the same time, there’s reports that the number of civilian complaints about improper use of force by police or discourtesy by police has been on the sharp increase, and the fact apparently — a report just came out this week that 60 percent of all the complaints are coming from African Americans, that there seems to be a real problem especially within the African-American community continually in relations with police in recent years.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: I would attribute that to what I’ve always believed. What the police officers have written on the side of the car — “courtesy, professionalism and respect” — has a dual connotation. It means one thing in middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods and something else in our neighborhoods. So they operate based on their own guidelines, not departmental policies.

AMY GOODMAN: And we just should say, this conversation is taking place the night after — well, this from the Associated Press, police said they shot and killed an armed man after he tried to run away from uniformed officers, then tussled with them in a building lobby Wednesday night in the Bronx. Police said they found the man was carrying a semi-automatic gun, but only officers fired. Witnesses reported police shot the man four times at close range. One eyewitness, Hector Suarez, said the police officer stood over his head, he just looked down at him and he just shot four times — one, two, three, four. There is a march planned for Saturday. Can you talk about what the plans are?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Yes, we’re going to be mobilizing at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, marching down to 34th Street and Fifth Avenue to send a message to the city of New York that the black community is outraged by the truculent behavior of some in the police department, and it’s not going to be tolerated no more. It’s sad to say that we were of the opinion that we were developing a pretty fair and decent relationship with the police department. Hence, we’re set back now, believing we haven’t come not too far since the days of Amadou Diallo.

I am reminded of a shooting that took place back around 1973, when this racist police officer named Thomas Shea shot down a 10-year-old kid, Clifford Glover. This smacks of the same type of disregard for the black community. And I recall the response the community gave at that time. They took to the streets, and they clearly demonstrated it won’t be tolerated no more. I’m in a very difficult position, in that as clergy in the neighborhood, we are pleading for calm, but the neighborhood is starting to say, “Reverend, how can we be? Black blood is not cheap.”

AMY GOODMAN: Now, at the meeting at 1199, where leaders from around the community gathered to plan this march, your second son was taken while you were inside the meeting?

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: At that time. While we were in the meeting I had my phones on vibrator. When I left the building, of course, I reached for my phone to see who’s calling. When I retrieved the messages, I had a message from a lieutenant in the Internal Affairs who I had met, consequently, when my first son was arrested. He was one of the people questioning him. And I really shared some concrete information with them regarding their lack of interpersonal relational skills, and I think thereby they told him, because he’s black, interestingly, to call me and assure me this arrest was unrelated to the other stuff going on.

If, in fact, it was unrelated, then why would you be questioning him about the shooting? I mean, I said to my colleague that was with me, “Do we need Hooked on Phonics to understand what’s going on?” I mean, for you to say it’s unrelated, but you’re going to question him about the shooting? And my godson was with him, Terry McKenzie. The police officers kneed him in his stomach.

AMY GOODMAN: Kneed him.

ERSKINE WILLIAMS: Kneed Terry in the stomach and beat him in his leg, and they asked him what he knew about the shooting. And when he said he didn’t know anything, they took him down and accused him of trying to peddle drugs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s going to wrap up our discussion now. We will certainly follow the march this Saturday, December 16, in New York City. And I want to thank you, Bishop Erskine Williams, for joining us, bishop of the New Seasons Family Worship Center and pastor for the Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman families, the two men who were also shot by New York police the morning that Sean Bell was killed.

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