Most police officers don't fire their guns a single time over the course of their careers. But those rare moments when they do pull the trigger are fast, furious and frenetic.
And, as several New York policemen discovered early Saturday morning, sometimes things go tragically awry in the adrenaline-pumping, split-second heat of the moment.
When four officers fired 50 shots at bridegroom Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed man leaving a bachelor party in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, the incident marked the latest in a rare but recurring problem for police departments around the country: When cops engage in "contagious shooting" against an unarmed suspect.
"Contagious shooting" refers to the phenomenon in which multiple officers will start shooting once one officer has opened fire -- even if no real threat is present. Experts say the reaction is a response to sudden fear.
"When a fellow officer starts shooting it sends off an alarm, warning the others that they must be in lethal danger," says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills forensic psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute in Los Angeles, Calif. "Not only is there ostensibly a 'killer on the loose,' but they fear they can no longer count on their fellow officers to protect them."
Lieberman says the phenomenon is more common than many may realize. Thus, she says, it is important that officers be held accountable for their actions. "The officer who starts the shooting is responsible for where he aims and how many times he shoots at the alleged 'criminal,'" she says. "The other officers who become affected by the 'contagion' are responsible for panicking, becoming blinded by the outbursts of gunfire, and not restraining themselves enough to assess the situation."
Although the tragedy immediately reminded many of the infamous 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, when NYPD officers fired 41 shots at the unarmed West African immigrant, that type of high-round shooting is actually quite rare in New York. The number of shots fired per officer in each of the 112 shooting incidents this year was 3.2. Last year, it was 3.7 shots fired per officer, down from a high of 5.0 in 1995.
"It's amazing that this doesn't happen more often when you think about the thousands of contacts that the police have with the public," says Edward Mamet, a law enforcement consultant and retired NYPD captain. "The New York police is very restrained. This type of contagious shooting happens out West -- it's a cowboy mentality. They like to shoot out there."
Indeed, high-round shooting has been a perennial problem in Los Angeles, Denver and other cities. Last June, six Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies fired more than 50 shots into the car in which drunken driving suspect Carl Williams was driving, after his car rammed a police vehicle following a chase. One deputy fired so many shots that he had to reload his weapon during the incident.
That shooting occurred a year after the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department instituted several rules that restricted when deputies could fire at moving cars or fire multiple times.