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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

October 14, 2003
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NYC Police Fire 21 Shots in Drug Bust Gone Bad

By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM, The New York TImes

New York City police shot and seriously wounded a man early Friday during an undercover drug buy on a Harlem street corner, firing 21 shots, police officials said.

An undercover detective and a backup detective - known in police parlance as a ghost - and two passing uniformed officers who heard the detectives' shots all fired at the man around 1:40 a.m. at West 120th Street and Lenox Avenue, several senior police officials said. All fired, the officials said, because they believed that the man had a gun.

But no gun was recovered, and late yesterday afternoon two police officials said the man, who has not yet been identified, might have been bluffing the undercover detective, reaching into his waistband and pulling his hand out as if he had a pistol. One civilian witness told detectives investigating the shooting that the undercover and backup detectives both yelled, "Drop it!" at the man several times before they fired, and that the man appeared to have something in his hand, one of the officials said. No drugs were recovered from the wounded man.

The drug buy - a routine transaction that undercover detectives conduct daily around the city - went bad after the undercover detective paid the man $15 for three small vials of crack cocaine and was told to go around the corner to retrieve the crack, the officials said.

When the undercover detective refused, the two men argued, and a third man who was with the suspect walked away, heading south on Lenox Avenue, the official said. The suspect then reached into his waistband, and the detective fired, initially from close range, then fleeing behind a car across the street, where he fired again, the official said.

Two officers from the 25th Precinct, who were in a patrol car with a sergeant transporting DNA evidence from an earlier crime, heard the shots and pulled up seconds later, officials said.

"The uniformed officers, who happened to be one block away, heard the shots being fired," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said yesterday. "They responded. It's reported that they see an individual with a gun turn toward them, they also fired."

One police official said the sergeant who was accompanying the uniformed officers did not fire his weapon because the two officers were between him and the suspect. But the sergeant told investigators he wanted to fire because he saw muzzle flashes coming from the direction of the suspect. He may have seen the reflection of the officers' muzzle flashes in the windows of nearby cars, officials said.

Commissioner Kelly, speaking at a plaque dedication yesterday afternoon at the 113th Precinct station house in Queens, said the conduct of the officers involved in the shooting was under review. "The investigation surrounding the details of the shooting is still going forward," he said. Mr. Kelly said none of the officers had been involved in previous shootings.

The undercover detective fired 11 shots, emptying his 9-millimeter Glock pistol, and his backup investigator fired once, the police said. One of the uniformed officers fired four shots, and the other fired five, the police said.

The Police Department would not release the names of the officers and the detectives involved. The detectives, who were assigned to Manhattan North Narcotics, had worked undercover for several years, a person familiar with their careers said.

Yesterday afternoon, workers from the city's Department of Environmental Protection and police officers from the Emergency Service Unit searched for a gun in a sewer drain near where the wounded man collapsed, scooping out the muck and raking through it, but no weapon was found. The $15 that the undercover detective had passed to the suspect was found near the sewer grate, smeared with blood, an official said.

It is unclear how many of the 21 shots that were fired hit the man, but he has eight bullet wounds in his legs and torso, some of which may be exit wounds, a police official said. The man was taken to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where he was in stable condition but in danger of losing a leg, the police said. A spokesman for the hospital would not comment, citing federal privacy rules.

The gunshots ripped into several cars that were parked along the tidy block of historic brownstones, and the police later towed some of them to the precinct as part of the investigation. One car, a green Kia sedan, remained parked on the street, its windows shattered, apparently by the gunshots. Bullet marks also left gouges on a brick wall of one newly renovated building.

A security camera at a cafe across the street from the shooting captured part of the events that led up to and followed the shooting, an official said, but the shooting itself occurred outside the camera's view was not recorded. The police seized the hard drive of a computer in the cafe that had stored the images recorded by the camera, a cafe employee said.

While residents of 120th Street described the corner where the shooting occurred as a quiet one, they said drug sellers could be found to the north and south along Lenox Avenue, and one woman on her way to work yesterday morning complained about what she said was an increasing number of drug-related incidents in the neighborhood.






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