Outrage, Questions in Cops' Shooting of Groom

ByABC News

NEW YORK, Nov. 26, 2006 — -- A police shooting of a groom leaving a bachelor party in New York City is provoking outrage and prompting questions about when deadly force is justified.

Officers early Saturday fired 50 shots at three men who turned out to be unarmed. One of the three men died -- just hours before he was supposed to marry the mother of his two children.

On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered outside the hospital where two of the shooting victims were being treated.

The third, Sean Bell, 23, was shot four times in the torso and the throat, and died from gunshot wounds that punctured his larynx, lung and liver, according to the New York Medical Examiner's autopsy report.

The shooting happened outside a strip club in the New York City borough of Queens where the men had been celebrating Bell's upcoming wedding.

Investigators are trying to determine why five officers, some of them undercover, allegedly fired the 50 rounds at the men, and whether the officers used excessive force.

The strip club, called the Kalua Club, had been under police surveillance for other alleged illegal activity.

Many details about the shooting remained murky.

"I am all confused about what happened," said one protester. "I don't understand it. I am lost for words. I don't think it was right. I don't find it fair."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the well-known New York community activist, has spent time with Bell's family.

"When you talk about 50 shots," Sharpton said, "I mean at what point do police understand that no one is shooting back at you?"

This is not the first controversial police shooting in New York City. In 1999, police shot and killed a young black man named Amadou Diallo, firing 41 times. Police said they thought he was reaching for a gun, but Diallo was unarmed. The incident sparked outrage and charges of racism in the New York Police Department.

The officers involved in this incident said they also had reason to believe the men were armed, but no weapon was found at the scene. Two officers who did not fire their guns have told police investigators that another officer, also undercover, had overheard the men saying they had a gun in their car.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said it is still too early in the investigation to know whether the shootings were justified.

At a press conference Saturday night, Kelly outlined the chain of events given by officers at the scene -- that Bell and his friends drove their car into an unmarked police vehicle and an undercover officer.

"As the undercover officer approached the front of the car, the car moved forward striking the undercover [officer]," Kelly said. "It then plowed into the front of the police minivan that has just turned south on Liverpool Street."

That, apparently, is when the firing began.

Former New York Police Officer Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said investigators will ask several key questions, including, "Where was the vehicle? Could the officers have gotten out of the way? Did they fire at that point because of the vehicle, the car, being directed at them? Or did they look into the car? Or did they feel that someone in the car actually had a gun?"

Because of the potential danger to bystanders, New York City police officers are not permitted to fire at a moving vehicle unless someone in the vehicle is firing at them.

That is the policy at most big-city police departments, including Los Angeles. The L.A. Police Commission imposed its ban last year after police shot to death a 13-year-old boy who was backing a car toward them following a chase.

While Bell's family mourns his death, the five officers who allegedly fired guns during the incident have been placed on administrative leave.

Prosecutors will continue to look for additional witnesses, and the New York Police Department has promised to cooperate with the investigation.

ABC News' Richard Esposito, Ron Claiborne and Lenny Bourin contributed to this report.

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