What Sean Bell's Legacy Needs To Be
A permanent, independent prosecutor to handle police crimes
by Tom Robbins
April 29th, 2008 12:00 AM
Michael Stewart would have celebrated his 50th birthday this year, and you can only wonder what marvelous things he might be doing were he still around. He was 25 years old in 1983, a handsome, free-spirited African-American artist and model with lanky limbs and a tangle of dark curls who lived with his parents, a retired teacher and a Transit Authority maintenance worker, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
According to police, Stewart was spraying graffiti inside the subway station at 14th Street and First Avenue at 2:30 a.m. on September 15 that year when they objected. This should not have merited a death sentence. But for reasons never explained, Stewart wound up bloodied and battered, his wrists bound to his ankles, the way only hogs are supposed to be tied. There were 11 cops present for his arrest, so it was also unclear why such severe restraint was necessary. There were discrepancies as well as to whether Stewart was even breathing when the cops drove him to Bellevue Hospital; the arresting officer insisted he was fine, but a report later found that this was most certainly a lie, since a nurse who was the first to see him said he had already turned blue from lack of air.
Stewart lapsed into a coma and was dead 13 days later. Six white transit officers were brought to trial. All six were acquitted by an all-white jury.
That was long ago, a different victim in a different borough in a different time. But it still has everything to do with the not-guilty verdict in Queens that outraged so many people last week around the city.
To get to the issues surrounding the death by police bullets of Sean Bell on the morning of his wedding day, you first have to joust with all the ghosts that have preceded him: that of Stewart, of Arthur Miller, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Timothy Stansbury, Khiel Coppin, and a score of others.
The fact that those who mistakenly die at the hands of the police are most often black and Hispanic remains the most obscene tax levied on this city's communities of color. It is an old injustice, but one for which the powers-that-be still lack any credible answers.
In this latest episode, a dubious mission—using heavily armed police to detect prostitution at a raucous strip club—became a fatal disaster.
Yet the judge's ruling would have us somehow accept that no one is at fault: that 50 unreturned bullets can be fired at three unarmed men, and no criminal penalties are warranted; that this case of unnecessary force somehow rests on the credibility of victims who still carry their own bullet wounds; that the police officers were somehow more rightfully fearful for their lives than Bell and his friends were for their own.
"Is this 1955 Alabama?" asked William Bell, the slain victim's father, after the verdict.
"Somebody has to answer that for me."
It's not, but no one could be blamed for wondering.
Not that there weren't important differences between this one and prior incidents: For one thing, two of the cops who fired shots were black; one of them even lives in Bushwick. Wasn't that one of the old rallying cries? That cops should be recruited from the communities they are charged with protecting, not imported from white suburbs?
For another, unlike the Diallo case, in which the acquittals were won in Albany, the police lawyers did not succeed in hijacking this one to an out-of-town court. It was tried just a couple of miles from where Bell died, close enough for neighbors and friends to keep an eye on things and register their discontent.
But the questions that arise in the wake of this acquittal are the same that were asked in angry frustration after the Diallo case, the Stewart case, and all the others where perpetrators were found to have committed no wrong. And we will never escape the cycle of suspicion and recrimination until some new and believable system of law enforcement for these cases is created and applied.
On Sunday afternoon, Norman Siegel, the city's civil-liberties conscience, and Eric Adams, a former detective turned politician, came to One Police Plaza in lower Manhattan to offer a reasonable solution to the justice system's endlessly inept response to these recurring tragedies.
"The verdict by Justice Arthur Cooperman in the Sean Bell case confirms that it is difficult, almost impossible, to prosecute on-duty police officers in misconduct cases," said Siegel, "especially those involving homicide allegations. The verdict underscores the need for systemic change."
The remedy should be clear, he said: "We need to create a statewide, permanent special prosecutor for police corruption and brutality."
The current method of relying on locally elected prosecutors "ignores the built-in conflict of interest that is the result of routine working relationships between the district attorneys' offices and the police," he said. Moreover, D.A.'s "often lack the necessary expertise and experience in handling cases of this magnitude."
An independent prosecutor would be free of those conflicts and able to establish "a proven record of accomplishment," said Siegel, "one that engendered confidence to the community and the law-enforcement world, and which would be able to publicly explain why, in certain instances, the correct legal result was no indictment or no conviction."
Adams, now a state senator from Brooklyn, said that as a detective he saw the relationship up close. Cops rely on the D.A., and the D.A. relies on the cops: "It makes it extremely difficult for him then to then turn around and prosecute his partner in fighting for criminal justice," he said.
It's not a new idea, but the last time it was raised, it was quickly squelched by both the police unions and the city's district attorneys, who loathe the notion of sharing cases, budgets, and headlines with another investigative office.
But you only needed to watch Queens D.A. Richard Brown's tortured demeanor on Friday after the verdict to know that a special prosecutor dedicated to handling police problems would be doing him and all the other D.A.'s a favor by taking these thankless cases off their hands.
Brown's office was torn apart in an internal dispute over whether to even bring charges in the Bell case. He ultimately erred on the side of trying to win justice. But he'll never escape the suspicion that his office simply took a dive.
Why did his prosecutors read the defendants' grand-jury testimony into the record, critics immediately asked, a move that ensured that the cops wouldn't have to take the stand, thus avoiding potentially damaging cross-examination? Why didn't prosecutors ask the judge to consider the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide—a crime that does not require that wrongful intent on the cops' part be proven?
Eugene O'Donnell, an ex-cop and prosecutor who now ponders the bigger picture as professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that despite his doubts about the independent-prosecutor plan, it may be time to try something new. "Maybe you do need an outside person," he says. "I don't think it is out of order to look at another model. I think at the end of the day, the cops will still be vindicated. But an independent prosecutor and an independent staff that is really skilled at their work? That could build the confidence level of the community."
The ticket to change, say Siegel and Adams, is the new governor. As a state senator answerable only to his Harlem district, David Paterson felt strongly enough about these issues to be arrested as part of the wave of civil-disobedience protests launched after Diallo's killing. Have his passions cooled now that he's the state's chief executive?
"He could do it by executive order," says Siegel. "Nelson Rockefeller did it. So could Paterson."