Slowly recovering from the killing last year of an unarmed man on his wedding day, the New York Police Department is now proposing mandatory breathalyzer tests after such shootings. Sean Bell, a 23-year-old father of two who was due to marry his girlfriend, died in a hail of 50 bullets hours before his wedding in November last year.
Police opened fire on Bell's car outside a topless bar. Two other men in the car were wounded, one critically. Police opened fire after an undercover officer, on an anti-prostitution operation, overheard an argument between Bell's party and another group of men.
After overhearing the word "gun", the officer challenged Bell and his friends and opened fire when the car they were traveling in lurched forward and struck the officer and an unmarked police van. The other officers, none of whom had fired their weapons in the line of duty before, then started shooting. One detective, a 12-year veteran of the force with a spotless record, fired two magazines -- 31 bullets in all -- in the ensuing chaos.
Subsequently it was revealed that detective Gescard Isnora, one of the officials involved, had been authorized to have two drinks while trying to blend in with patrons at the bar. Police have insisted there was no evidence that alcohol played a role in Isnora's decision to open fire. A commander who spoke to him immediately after the shooting judged him "fit for duty."
Since then, an advisory panel has concluded that mechanical breath tests are "the right thing to do," Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, adding, "I think it's feasible." The NYPD would use the test results to determine whether alcohol factored into a shooting and if the shooter should be disciplined. The panel stopped short of banning drinking by undercovers. It instead recommended strict enforcement of the existing two-drink limit and training "on credible ways to avoid drinking altogether when pressured to do so by subjects."
Starting in September, the New York Police Department will administer breathalyzer tests like those used in drunken-driving stops on any on- or off-duty officers who kill or wound someone, Kelly said Monday. The breath tests were one of 19 recommendations made by police officials assigned to study the NYPD's undercover operations amid community outrage over the killing of Sean Bell. Other steps include more stringent psychological screenings for undercover candidates, improving scenario-based training with the help of professional actors, and installing lights and sirens in unmarked cars.
The measures are expected to make "undercover operations the safest possible for the police and public alike," Kelly said. He said at least one other police department, in Milwaukee, issues the breath tests to officers involved in certain shootings. An attorney for Bell's fiancee and his two wounded friends praised the new police department policy Monday. "It is positive change. It is a first step in the right direction," said the lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein.
He said New York's Legislature should require the same alcohol testing statewide of all officers involved in shootings.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has counseled and spoken for the victims, said ensuring that the public knows whether police officers are "in complete control of their senses when making life and death decisions" is critical. Sharpton's National Action Network has been holding weekly rallies and other events to draw attention to the Bell shooting case.
In March, Isnora and another detective, Michael Oliver, were indicted on manslaughter charges. A third, Marc Cooper, was charged with a misdemeanor for a bullet that struck an elevated train station across the street from the bar.