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.
Those changes were made in the wake of a shooting incident that was captured on video and shown on television: When 44-year-old drug suspect Winston Hayes' SUV lurched forward and hit a police car, deputies unloaded their weapons, firing 120 shots. Four bullets ended up hitting Hayes (who survived), one hit a deputy sheriff, 11 hit patrol cars and 11 hit five homes in the neighborhood (one of them ended up tearing a hole in a homeowner's hat).
"This tragedy caused a lot of consternation and spurred a change in our policy," says Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review at the LA sheriff's department. 'We made it more stringent only to shoot at vehicles as a last resort, when you have no alternative."
And it seems to be working. Last year, there were 15 high-round incidents, which are described as any situation in which a deputy fires more than six rounds. So far this year, there have been 10 such incidents.
Some experts believe that even more could be done to reduce the number of incidents.
Joseph McNamara, a Hoover fellow at Stanford University, was a police officer in the Harlem section of New York for several decades when the neighborhood was one of the highest crime precincts in the city. Later, he led the police departments in Kansas City and San Jose.
"Four times I came close to pulling the trigger and thank God, I didn't," McNamara says. "It's only two and a half pounds of pressure. You can't undo that decision. When the blood is pumping, in the heat of the adrenaline, you've got to maintain your self-discipline."
McNamara believes that high-round incidents occur due to the increased firepower that police departments have been using in the last few decades and because of inadequate training.
"Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the culture changed and the stress began to be placed on officer safety," according to McNamara, who says he remains haunted by an incident that happened eight days into his tenure as police chief in Kansas City.
"An officer shot and killed a 14-year-old black boy -- the kid was barely over five feet and he had broken into an unoccupied home and someone called the police. He was unarmed and he was running away and the officer fired a shotgun and killed him," McNamara says.
Against the advice of his colleagues, McNamara went to the funeral for the boy as a gesture of sympathy. "I got two cartons of hate mail that I still keep in my garage."
As a result of the incident, McNamara instituted new guidelines for the department that restricted when an officer could shoot. Previously, an officer could fire on any felon who was fleeing.
"If you don't tell them what to do, how do they know what to do?" he said.
Back in New York, a "deeply disturbed" Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to agree. At a press conference today, the mayor said he believes police officers used "excessive force" when they fired 50 shots at Bell.
"It's unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired," said Bloomberg, who emphasized that "everything will be done to prevent future incidents like this from occurring."