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Grand Jury Indicts Three NYPD Officers in Sean Bell Shooting, Two Face Manslaughter Charges

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A grand jury has indicted three police officers in the killing of Sean Bell. Bell was killed in November on his wedding day when police fired 50 shots at a car carrying him and two friends. All three men were unarmed. Sources say two of the officers will be charged with second-degree manslaughter. A third officer will be charged with reckless endangerment. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: A grand jury has indicted three police officers in the killing of Sean Bell. Bell was killed in November on his wedding day when police fired 50 shots at a car carrying him and two friends. All three men were unarmed. Sources say two of the officers will be charged with second-degree manslaughter. A third officer will be charged with reckless endangerment. Two of the officers involved in the shooting were not indicted. The grand jury deliberated for three days before handing down the indictment. It will be unsealed later today. Lawyers for the three officers said they had been told to surrender for arraignment this afternoon.

Michael Oliver, who fired 31 of the shots, and Gescard Isnora, who fired 11, face the felony manslaughter charges. Marc Cooper, who fired four shots, faces the misdemeanor endangerment charge. Cooper and Isnora are black. Oliver is white.

On Sunday, the New York Post had a front-page photograph of Detective Michael Oliver with the headline, “Rap Party.” Oliver was spotted partying at one of New York’s fancy restaurants, ringing up a pricy tab on Friday night right after the indictments were revealed. And again, by the way, these indictments we only know according to unnamed sources, although the media has reported this. Local ABC Eyewitness News captured video of Oliver eating dinner with three women and another man. During the meal, they were served pasta dishes with truffle oil, each plate costing $180. They drank five bottles of wine that cost $575 each. The total bill for the dinner was over $4,200. Oliver is the cop who fired the 31 shots. He emptied a magazine, reloaded his gun and continued shooting at Sean Bell and his friends.

We’re now joined in studio by Graham Weatherspoon, a retired detective with the New York Police Department and a spokesperson for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Thank you, Amy. Good morning. Good to see you again.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we don’t know absolutely until the announcement is made today at the courthouse, but your response to three of the five detectives being indicted?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Well, you know, ordinarily in cases involving a multiplicity of defendants, the defendants are charged with acting in concert. Such is not the case in this matter. Two of the detectives have been released from any liability, at least from criminal liability, in the case. Civilians would ordinarily be charged with acting in concert in the collective actions of the individuals causing the death or the injury of another person.

AMY GOODMAN: Especially if they opened fire.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Definitely so, yes. We don’t know exactly what the charges will be. We’ve heard speculation of it being manslaughter in the second degree. But the penal law of the state of New York with regard to homicide and murder states that if there is an extenuating circumstance — and this is not — I’m not quoting it verbatim — but if there is a circumstance causing the emotions of a person to rise to a level whereby they conducted these acts and also loosely under the performance of duty, then it is an affirmative defense. So we cannot expect to see police officers in the state of New York being prosecuted for murder or even criminal negligent homicide at times or manslaughter in the first degree, because their emotions have risen to a point where they discharge their weapon and cause the death of an individual. And this is a very critical piece, because we saw it as far back as the Rodney King case and also with Amadou Diallo, when they said they were afraid for their safety.

AMY GOODMAN: Five detectives, three are charged. What do these three men face, in terms of years, if they were convicted?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: I believe, at best, one to three years in prison, at best.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Michael Oliver’s — what seems to be his response hours after it was revealed — again, unnamed sources; we don’t know exactly the charges; they will be unsealed today — partying at Nello’s, a very fancy restaurant in New York?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Well, if I were facing prison time, I’d be very concerned. I don’t think I would be out on the East Side or anyplace. I’d be home in my house trying to figure out how I got into that dilemma. And it’s very discerning that we don’t find any remorse, not only in this case, but in other cases. The union does what it’s supposed to do in defending their clients. But there’s never a sign of remorse by the New York City Police Department. The same words are always used: “It’s a tragedy.” Criminal acts are not tragedies. They’re criminal acts. And you cannot bring back a life after you’ve taken it. It’s impossible to do.

AMY GOODMAN: The reports are that the New York Police Department, that the commissioner, Ray Kelly, has hired the RAND Corporation to evaluate the use of guns in training. You’re a longtime New York City Police detective, retired now. What about this response?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Well, it’s very interesting that the defendant in the case should choose what agency should evaluate itself. It’s as good as an internal audit. The RAND Corporation has done a lot of work, not just nationally, but internationally, for independent governments and agencies around the world. But for Commissioner Kelly to have selected them to do an evaluation of the police procedures in New York, I don’t think it’s a just or fitting move on his part. That determination should have been made by the City Council or even by the governor or by the federal authorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Graham Weatherspoon, you may remember that on Democracy Now! we played this exclusive footage that we had gotten from two surveillance cameras at the Port Authority’s Jamaica Avenue Air Train station, which is a half block from the shooting site, from the Kalua Club. The video reveals one of the bullets fired by the five cops narrowly missed striking a civilian and two Port Authority patrolmen who were standing on the station’s elevated platform. One video shows a bullet shattering a window in the station and nearly hitting the man. The second video shows two police officers scrambling for cover at the station after the shot was fired, which just shows that these bullets — was frightening. They were going everywhere.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Yes. A lamp was shot in the living room of one of the houses directly across from where the incident took place. And this is cause for serious concern. I have been in situations where individuals were armed, bank robberies and such. And, matter of fact, I was in a bank robbery once, and one of the robbers knew exactly who I was, and I was looking down the barrel of a gun through that entire robbery. And in talking with the gentleman, I told him, “If you shoot the manager, you will not leave the bank.” He didn’t know that my uncle was there. He was also armed, and he would have shot this bank robber.

But we cannot have officers responding in this manner, where in their shooting unarmed people, they’re firing rounds into the homes of people and then firing around 40 or 50 feet above the ground and almost killing a passenger in a railway terminal. This does not denote professional training. It doesn’t denote a professional response to a given situation. And this is another aspect of this case that the commissioner is not even looking at.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that the charges are manslaughter and not murder? The difference?

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Well, I’d like to read the statute. “Murder is with the intent to cause death of another individual and thereby causing that death.” All right? Manslaughter in the second degree: “A person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when he recklessly causes the death of another person.” It is just that simple. But going back to the murder, “It’s an affirmative defense that the defendant acted under the influence of an extreme, emotional disturbance, for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse.” So when they say that they believed that individuals might have had a gun in the car, see, that is the window whereby they can elude being charged. The manslaughter charge just says that you have caused another person’s death, and recklessly.

Police officers do not train as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans did back in the '50s. We're not trained to shoot the gun out of a person’s hand or inflict the flesh wound. We’re trained to shoot to center mass, and that is into the torso area. And in doing so, the probability is that you are going to cause the death of an individual. So when we fire, it is with that knowledge and that intent that we are moving to terminate a life. And that is why the police department, on record, discusses the use of deadly, physical force in restricted areas, under restricted conditions. But yet, in some of these cases, when the shootings take place, it doesn’t meet the situation. You have to assess. You just can’t fire because you’re scared. You have to assess whether or not there is an actual threat against you.

AMY GOODMAN: In the case of Amadou Diallo, it was four white police officers who gunned him down. Kenneth Boss just sued the New York Police Department. They were acquitted, but he has not been able to come off desk duty. He went to Iraq. He said going to Iraq and serving and coming back, that he should be able to serve as a police officer on the streets of New York.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: That’s ludicrous. Kenneth Boss shot and killed Patrick Bailey on Sheffield Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, in the 75th Precinct, 15 months prior to shooting and killing Amadou Diallo. And Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes, who was still the Brooklyn DA, sat on that case for 15 months. And it wasn’t until three days after he killed Amadou Diallo that that shooting became an issue. And I personally met with then-Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Howard Safir and First Deputy Commissioner Kelleher with regard to that matter. And that matter was whitewashed and swept under the carpet. So this is not a man who has had a stellar career with NYPD. And my question to Howard Safir then was: How did you take a man who had an open case in a shooting and move him from a precinct into the street crime unit, where now he has killed another person, when the first case has not even been addressed?

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, he was acquitted in that case, along with the three others. And I wanted to ask you: In that case, it was four white officers; this time around, of the three of the five men the indictments came down against, two of them are black; one, Michael Oliver, who fired the most shots, 31, is white.

GRAHAM WEATHERSPOON: Yes, but, you see, we are not concerned with the races of individuals. We’re concerned with the behavior of the individuals. I could not defend or advocate for a person just because they’re black. I have to advocate, as the district attorney is obligated to do, to protect the innocent. And black officers, white officers, Hispanic, Asian, all officers need to understand that they cannot get caught up in the moment and think that they’re not going to have to face a situation such as this. These are harrowing situations for them and their families.

The fact that two of these officers are black doesn’t denote anything other than the fact that there is a mindset within the police department, within police culture, and even African Americans can get swept into that mindset, where they are acting, just as an overseer acted on the plantation years ago, to take acts and commit acts against people who look just like himself, and forgetting the connection, forgetting the humanity. See, so these officers, regardless of their color, they need to be chastised. And I don’t believe that they are qualified to serve as police officers anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Graham Weatherspoon, for joining us. I know you have to race off. You’re going to the Queens courthouse. You’ll be with the family. And we will continue to cover this. Today, the indictments will be officially unsealed. And we’ll bring you more on this tomorrow. Graham Weatherspoon, retired police detective with the New York Police Department, a spokesperson for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.

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