Outcome of NYPD Case Leads to Call for Special Prosecutor
By Richard Pyle
New York - A coalition of civil rights advocates on Sunday urged changes in the handling of police misconduct and brutality complaints after the acquittal of three officers involved in the shooting death of an unarmed man on his wedding day.
They also called for a permanent state-level special prosecutor to investigate such cases.
"The verdict in the Sean Bell case proves it is almost impossible to successfully prosecute cases of police misconduct, especially in homicide cases," said lawyer Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"The verdict underscores the need for systemic change in the way New York handles these important and at times high profile cases, and to improve community relations," said Siegel, an outspoken advocate on civil rights and law enforcement issues.
Three city police officers were cleared Friday in the November 2006 shooting death of Bell outside a night club where he had just left his bachelor party. Two friends were wounded in the volley of 50 shots fired by the undercover officers and two colleagues.
The officers charged said they thought they were in mortal danger, but no gun was found in Bell's car.
Siegel was joined at a news conference outside police headquarters by state Sen. Eric Adams and retired police officer Marq Claxton. Adams and Claxton co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.
Adams, a former police captain, said the state-level special prosecutor's office should be reinstated permanently by law. A previous special prosecutor's office was created by former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1974 but abolished in 1993 by Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, whose office prosecuted the Bell shooting case, had said there was no basis for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
The special prosecutor should have power to investigate allegations of police misconduct and brutality, as well as corruption, they said. The previous office was created primarily as a result of corruption exposes in the NYPD, and that was its primary focus, Siegel said.
"They looked the other way on cases of brutality," Siegel said.
Adams also urged passage of legislation to give the state attorney general's office power to take immediate control of a crime scene in cases like the Bell shooting to make sure all evidence is preserved.
"I don't believe a police department involved in a shooting should be responsible for the crime scene," he said.
Siegel and Adams said they looked for support on the issues from Gov. David Paterson, who recently replaced the disgraced Gov. Eliot Spitzer, saying that as a legislator and minority rights spokesman Paterson had been a strong voice in previous police shooting controversies.
Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for Paterson, said the governor had learned of the proposals only from media reports and would review them.
He "takes the issue of police wrongdoing very seriously, but he also believes that the overwhelming majority of police officers perform their duties honorably and conscientiously each and every day," Duggan said.
Also Sunday, more than 200 people, including elected officials and civil rights leaders, gathered at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network in Manhattan to renew calls for officials of the U.S. Department of Justice to bring federal charges against the three officers.