It was inevitable that New Yorks racial provocateurs would make the fatal shooting of Sean Bell last November a central feature of Mondays Martin Luther King Jr. rallies. Sadly, it was just as inevitable that New Yorks politicians would acquiesce in that gambit, thus sacrificing the New York Police Department to racial politics.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, betraying his new role as head of the states law enforcement community, claimed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music King gathering that the Bell shooting was part of a longstanding pattern of police abuse. Minorities and poor people are disproportionately victims of criminal justice, Cuomo said, according to the New York Times. Actually, minorities are disproportionately victims of minority criminals. Blacks make up about two-thirds of the citys violent crime victims and their assailants are disproportionately other blacks. Nearly two-thirds of the citys violent criminals are black, even though blacks constitute just 25 percent of the citys population. Hundreds of blacks died at the hands of other blacks in New York City last year, without a peep of protest from Andrew Cuomo. If Cuomo wanted to reduce black victimization, he would focus his attention on stopping crime, not on demonizing the criminal justice system and the police department, which work overtime to bring public safety to law-abiding minorities.
Mayor Bloomberg showed himself just as willing to throw over the cops to buy racial absolution. The Bell shooting shows that despite all the progress we have made in this city, we really do have a long ways to go, he said. The Bloomberg press office claims that by progress, the mayor meant achievements in welfare reform, education, and crime reduction. In the context of the King commemoration, however, Bloombergs castigation of the citys insufficient progress seems equally likely to have invoked the issues of civil rights and black equality.
But the Sean Bell shooting, tragic as it was, was not a civil rights violation. Nothing in the facts of the case suggests any racial animus on the part of the undercover officers who shot Bell. On the contrary, the multi-racial team was working the Jamaica strip club where the shooting occurred in response to complaints from minority neighbors about the drug dealing and prostitution that regularly transpired there. If those officers bore animus toward minorities, they would ignore such crime, not try to stop it. According to several witnesses, the undercovers had good reason to believe that a member of Bells entourage was armed and ready to shoota belief that may have seemed confirmed when Bells car began gunning for them. The officers view that they faced deadly force may turn out in hindsight to have been wrong. But even if investigators ultimately deem the shooting unjustified, such a finding does not mean that discrimination was to blame.
Nor, pace Bloomberg, was the shooting part of a pattern that shows that the NYPD has a long ways to go before it treats all citizens fairly or operates with due restraint. The MLK Day politicking presumed that the Bell shooting represents a regular occurrence on the streets of New York. It does not. The NYPD has one of the lowest rates of fatal shootings of all big-city departments. It has driven the number of police shootings down from 54 in 1973 to nine in 2005and all of those against suspects who were using force against the shooting officers. The New York Police Department constantly reviews its training procedures to try to prevent any shootings of unarmed civilians from occurring. Despite its best efforts, however, sometimes mistakes tragically happen. But they are just thathorrifying, deadly mistakesnot manifestations of racial prejudice.
Politicians like Bloomberg and Cuomo assume that the police will continue working to make the city and state safer, regardless of how maligned they may be. Thus, if it proves politically convenient to imply that racism and injustice are regular features of city law enforcement, a self-serving pol can let those implications fly, even though his career depends, above all, on driving crime down. And the pols are probably right: the polices dedication to colorblind public safety is such that they will keep working despite the potshots. If their tolerance for unjustified abuse one day wears thin, though, and they decide to stop risking their lives and careers for so little respect, it will be interesting to see how New Yorks leaders make up for the loss.