It's Time for the NYPD to Bring the Sean Bell Case to a Close
By Murray Weiss
DNAinfo Contributing Columnist
The final chapter of one of the most divisive police shootings in New York City history is about to be written.
More than four years after Sean Bell was gunned down, the long-anticipated endgame at Police Headquarters of how to deal with departmental charges brought against the detectives and other officers involved in the case has started.
Though no timetable has been set, sources say the NYPD brass has dusted off the massive files in the Bell case and internal conversations are happening to figure out how to proceed.
In the balance are the careers of four detectives who fired their weapons during the 50-shot fusillade, the lieutenant in charge of the undercover operation that night and two Crime Scene Unit detectives who responded to the scene.
Bell, 23, was killed and two of his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were wounded in the shooting outside the Club Kalua strip joint in Jamaica, Queens, following Bell's bachelor party on Nov. 26, 2006.
The officers opened fire at Bell when his Nissan Altima struck a detective in the leg and hit a police van when he moved his car after being ordered to stop. The officers believed Bell and his friends went to the car to get a gun to take revenge on another group of men with whom they had exchanged words outside the club.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, many people assumed the NYPD would have to hold the mother of all departmental trials in the case. Since then, however, the detectives involved and their ranking officer have been kept on desk duty while other important developments in the case have transpired.
That should make it easier for the NYPD to negotiate plea deals with the officers, which could result in such punishments as loss of pay or, however unlikely, dismissal from the force. Deals would help the NYPD avoid the rehash of evidence in the trial room.
The last time this case went to trial, the three detectives who fired their weapons — Michael Oliver, who fired 31 times, Gescard Isnora, who fired once, and Marc Cooper, who fired four times — were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing in a sensational manslaughter trial in April 2008.
Anyone who sat in that Queens Supreme Court room, as I did, knows that Guzman, a convicted drug dealer, was the true architect of the events that led to the fatal clash with police, not the undercover officers. After all, he said he had a gun and vowed to go get it from Bell's car outside Club Kalua.
Following the not guilty verdicts, the NYPD dropped its own departmental manslaughter charge against the three acquitted cops. They, and a fourth officer, Michael Carey, who also fired his weapon that night, now face lesser charges of violating NYPD firearms guidelines.
Two crime scene officers — Sgt. Hugh McNeil and Det. Robin Knapp — were also charged: Knapp for allegedly failing to perform a thorough crime scene investigation and McNeill for failing to supervise Knapp.
Lt. Gary Napoli, the highest ranking officer on duty the night of the shooting, was also charged with three counts of failing to supervise the obviously sloppy prostitution sting that ended in the 50-shot barrage.
Then, a year ago, the Justice Department declined to bring a civil rights case against the NYPD officers. "Neither accident, mistake, fear, negligence, nor bad judgement is sufficient to establish a federal criminal rights violation," the feds said.
And last July, a civil lawsuit against the city was settled for $7 million, with Bell's family receiving $3,25 million, Guzman getting $3 million and Benefield receiving $900,000.
Now that all the other legal hurdles have been cleared, the NYPD is clear to finally settle the cases against their cops.
The final decision rests with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. It's time to negotiate the appropriate discipline for each officer involved, and correctly close this book.