12/01/2006

Shooting Furor: NYPD's image is mixed

The Associated Press

NEW YORK- The fatal shooting of an unarmed man by undercover officers again places New York police under unwelcome scrutiny. Critics say it's evidence of an unaccountable, sometimes trigger-happy force, while defenders -- backed by statistics -- insist the NYPD is among the best-trained, most restrained departments in the nation.

The attention, good and bad, is unavoidable. With more than 37,000 uniformed officers, the NYPD is by far the country's largest, highest-profile police force. Its sometimes chilling abuses become national news, yet its officers killed fewer people last year -- nine -- than some police departments in far smaller cities.

"There's always a spotlight on the NYPD," said Maki Haberfeld, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor who specializes in police training. "But in terms of actual numbers of shootings, and their use of force, there's no doubt in my mind they are one of the best departments on the country."

The NYPD's image has seesawed dramatically in the past decade. It was lionized in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and vilified before and since for a string of violent incidents, including the jailhouse torture of Abner Louima in 1997 and the 1999 killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was hit by 19 of the 41 bullets fired at him.

Many questions remain unanswered regarding the latest incident -- a man killed early on his wedding day by police gunfire as he left his bachelor party at a Queens strip club. Police officials say five officers fired a 50-bullet barrage at a car with three black men inside after it struck an undercover officer and an unmarked NYPD minivan. Sean Bell, 23, was killed.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, a frequent skeptic of the NYPD's ability to police itself, has called for an independent investigation of the shooting by the state attorney general's office.

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman noted that citizen complaints filed with a review board about alleged NPYD abuses had increased by 60 percent from 2001 to 2005.

"The shooting has to be looked at in that context," she said. "This is a time when the city should try to learn what went wrong -- not be defensive, but try to identify problems and solutions."

Other critics speaking out since the shooting include Amnesty International, civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and a local group of black officers seeking removal of a commander overseeing the undercover unit involved in the shooting.

"This tragedy is not an isolated incident -- it is part of a pattern of questionable police tactics and abuse," said Larry Cox of Amnesty International USA.

Yet statistics provided by the NYPD, and gathered by The Associated Press from other police departments, show the New York force in a relatively positive light.

While New York officers fatally shot 54 people in 1973 and 23 in 1996, last year the toll was nine people. According to the NYPD, that was a rate of 0.25 killings per 1,000 officers, far lower than in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and other major cities.

So far this year, at least 19 people have been killed by police in Philadelphia and 12 in Las Vegas, which has about 2,170 officers. Police have fatally shot 11 people so far this year in suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County, which with 700,000 residents is one-tenth the size of the New York City.

At the other end of the scale, the Miami police department -- which overhauled its use-of-force policies several years ago -- says it has had no fatal shootings by its officers this year.

For the NYPD, progress has come on several fronts. Its ranks have diversified markedly with an influx of blacks, Hispanics and women; its officers have been involved in 112 shooting incidents so far this year, compared to 318 in 1996.

"Our officers have shown, I think, tremendous restraint over time involving the use of force," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said this week.

One area of contention is the average number of shots fired per incident -- it has swung from 3.08 shots in 2004 to 5.02 last year to 3.8 so far this year. After both Saturday's shooting and the Diallo killing, critics complained of what they considered to be excessive barrages fired by officers equipped with semiautomatic weapons.

Another concern is the deployment of special units, such as those involved in the Diallo case and the Queens shooting.

"Special units often become detached from the normal chain of supervision," said Samuel Walker, a police policy consultant and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. "There's an attitude of, 'We can do what we want."'

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who teaches police studies at John Jay, said the NYPD's reputation is deservedly high among most experts, but he also noted that special units had been involved in several of New York's troubling incidents.

"They tend to be in more dangerous situations," Moskos said. "But I don't think the local beat cops would have shot Diallo. They know the area better. There's less fear."

He also said the suspected offenses being investigated at the Queens strip club may not have warranted the fatal barrage of gunfire.

"No innocent person should be dying over a prostitution issue," Moskos said. "It's pressure to produce that could lead to overpolicing."

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