NEW YORK — Mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in on the uproar over a deadly police shooting Monday, saying bluntly that officers appeared to use excessive force when they fired 50 shots at an unarmed man in a confrontation outside a strip club hours before his wedding.
“I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired, but that’s up to the investigation to find out what really happened,” Bloomberg said at a news conference after meeting with elected officials and community leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Charles Rangel.
Bloomberg said he was “deeply disturbed” by the fusillade in which the groom, Sean Bell, 23, was killed and two of his friends wounded early Saturday after a bachelor party. Suspecting that one of the men had a gun, police fired 50 rounds into the vehicle. The men were unarmed.
Sharpton called it a “very candid” meeting. He said the message to Bloomberg was: “This city must show moral outrage that 50 shots were fired on three unarmed men.” Some have also questioned whether the shooting was racially motivated because the victims were all black men. The five officers who fired their guns included two blacks, two whites and one Hispanic.
Of the victims, Bloomberg said Monday: “There is no evidence that they were doing anything wrong,” referring to everything leading up to the moment they struck the officer with their car.
Mayor sets a new tone
For a mayor to question the actions of the officers and defend the shooting victims — while reaching out immediately to the grieving community — sets a decidedly different tone than in the past.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was hounded for what some viewed as a slow response to the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 19 times in the Bronx by four white officers. They were later acquitted of criminal charges.
The gunfire in the current case stemmed from an undercover operation inside the Kalua Cabaret, where seven officers in plain clothes were investigating alleged prostitution and drug use.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said the groom was involved in an argument outside the club after 4 a.m., and one of his friends made a reference to a gun. An undercover officer walked closely behind Bell and his friends as they headed for their car. As he walked toward the front of the vehicle, they drove forward — striking him and an undercover police vehicle, Kelly said.
Bloomberg points to policy violation
The officer who had followed the group on foot was apparently the first to open fire, Kelly said. One 12-year veteran fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines, Kelly said.
Bloomberg also said police appeared to have violated the policy stating that officers cannot shoot at a vehicle being used as a weapon if no other deadly force is involved.
The five officers were placed on paid administrative leave and were stripped of their guns during the investigation.
Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, defended the officers’ actions and said police were responding to the threat of the car.
“The amount of shots fired does not spell out excessive to me,” Palladino said.
Giuliani’s response to the 1999 Diallo killing sparked protests nearly every day for weeks around City Hall, where demonstrators accused his administration of trampling the civil rights of blacks and Latinos.
Bloomberg’s allies these days include some who were once at odds with Giuliani. Sharpton acknowledged that the tone has changed, but said courtesy only goes so far.
“This man has better manners than his predecessor. Let’s see if we have better policy ... because we’re not just interested in being treated politely,” Sharpton said. “We’re interested in being treated fairly and rightly.”
Will meet with family
Bloomberg told reporters he did not believe the shooting was racially motivated but said “it’s clear that people in this city do feel that they are sometimes stopped, frisked, whatever, based on their ethnicity,” and he said his administration would work to prevent that.
The mayor planned to meet with the victim’s family as soon as it was appropriate, and said he would also visit the community in Queens.
Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre, made a quiet visit to the shooting site before dawn Monday, lighting candles clustered around a photograph of the smiling couple with one of their daughters.
The survivors were Joseph Guzman, 31, who was shot at least 11 times, and Trent Benefield, 23, who was hit three times. Guzman was in critical condition and Benefield in stable condition Monday.
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