A Recent History of NYPD Brutality

Sean Bell

Date: November 2006

In one of the most tragic instances of police brutality in the past decade, a group of men were shot at over fifty times by a group of undercover and plainclothes police officers in Queens. One of the men, 23-year-old Sean Bell, was killed. Two of Bell's friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, were severely wounded. Bell and his friends had been out celebrating at Jamaica strip club Club Kalua; the follow day, Bell was to be wed. An undercover police officer reportedly witnessed Bell get into an argument inside of the strip club, and someone allegedly yelled, "Yo, get my gun." Painclothes officer Gescard Isnora followed the men to their car fearing a confrontation, and Isnora says he identified himself as an officer, ordering Bell and friends to stop the vehicle, but Bell reportedly drove off, grazing Isnora's leg. As he pulled off, Bell's vehicle crashed into an unmarked police minivan. Isnora says he thought he saw Guzman reach for a gun, prompting him to yell, "Gun!," to other officers before they all opened fire. No gun was found.

Guzman says that officers never identified themselves, and it was also reported that police gave Bell no warning before sending a barrage of bullets his way. Isnora says that he saw a fourth man in the car who fled when shots were fired who may have had a weapon. Jean Nelson was speculated to be this fourth passenger, but he has denied being present and possessing a firearm. However, in the moments immediately following the shooting, there was no mention of a fourth passenger, nor did police search for one. Bell was shot 4 times; Guzman somehow managed to survive 19 gunshots, and Benefield was shot 3 times. Bell's killing drew thousands of protesters during the following weekend, which continued into the following week. Mayor Bloomberg called the shooting "unacceptable" and "inexplicable," saying that it appeared as though excessive force was used. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly put all five of the officers on administrative leave and stripped them of their weapons.

In March 2007, three of the five officers were indicted by a grand jury—Officers Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver, and Detective Marc Cooper. Isnora and Oliver were charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and assault, and Cooper was charged with reckless endangerment. In April 2008, all three officers were acquitted. The defendants asked that Justice Arthur J. Cooperman make a decision rather than a jury, and he ruled that police had reason to fear that a weapon may have been in Bell's vehicle that night. He added that many of the prosecution's witnesses, including the two other victims, provided testimonies that "didn't make sense." However, in May 2010, U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr. lifted a stay on the civil lawsuit filed by Nicole Paultre Bell against the city. A settlement was reached that July, with the city agreeing to pay Bell's family $3.25 million. Guzman, who now has to walk with a cane and has 4 bullets still inside of his body, was given $3 million, while Trent Benefield was given $900,000. Sean Bell's life was worth much more than $7 million. In May of 2012, Isnora was fired, and both Oliver and Cooper were forced into retirement along with their superior, Lt. Gary Napoli. Bell's fiancée called it "little justice."

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