Sean Bell was gunned down, shot at 50 times, after his last-minute bachelor party at Kalua Caberet on Nov. 25, 2006. Cops who were investigating prostitution at the club responded with force under the belief that the victim and his friends were going to their car to retrieve a gun after an altercation with another patron. One officer unloaded his gun, reloaded and, again, emptied his clip at the trio of young men. All three were wounded, but only two lived to speak of it. Once the firestorm had ceased, it became apparent that they were not going to the car to get a gun, as there was no gun present.
We've heard the practically cliche story plenty of times, now. Young, black, unarmed men gunned down savagely by white police officers. The race card is always pulled. This time is a little different, however. Two of the policemen involved in the shooting were black themselves. This fact brings into focus the real question, the one we should have been asking all along: What qualifies as excessive force?
The judge who decided this case said that "The People have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified" in shooting. Perhaps they were justified in shooting. After all, they claimed to have heard one of the men say, "Yo, go get my gun" and, after being warned to stop, the men bumped two police vehicles (one unmarked) as they attempted to get away.
But, is the question solely, "Should they have fired?" Perhaps we should be asking, "Should they have fired so many goddamn times?" Because it's worth stating again, Officer Oliver fired his weapon until it was out of bullets, loaded another full clip, and continued to fire until that one was out of bullets, for a grand total of 31 spend rounds. His fellow officers fired 11 and four shots, respectively.
Their excuse was that they believed they were under fire. Surrounded by chaos with multiple officers firing, it's a reasonable error, to a point. However, Oliver fired twice the shots of the other two officers combined. Surely, he would have realized at some point that he was the only one firing. Did it matter, though?
While "were they justified [in shooting]" may have been the only consideration in the courtroom, Oliver's superiors and police chiefs everywhere have the responsibility to determine whether the extent was justified. Killing an unarmed man and wounding two others with a modest amount of shots is a tragedy not easily forgotten. But doing so in no less than 50 shots tears a hole in communities that is not quick to mend. Resentment and distrust of police officers are conditions every urban center in American suffers from. Actions like this ripple through the country, lending credence to the paranoia.
Perhaps Oliver's career, if not his freedom, should be sacrificed for the greater good.