NEW YORK — Mayor Michael Bloomberg met with the family of a black man who was killed on his wedding day in a barrage of police gunfire as he and two of his friends left his bachelor party. All three men were unarmed.
Three days after the fatal encounter, it remained unclear Tuesday why four detectives and one police officer opened fire while conducting an undercover operation at a strip club.
Police also questioned an unidentified witness who was on a darkened block in Queens when five police officers killed 23-year-old Sean Bell and injured two friends as the three sat inside a car, officials said.
There are two other civilian witnesses: One woman on the street who says she saw officers firing their weapons, and a second woman who from her window spotted a man running away from the area around the time of the shooting. Investigators tried to determine if that man had been with the three who were shot.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg went to the Bell family's Queens church, where he met for about an hour with the parents and fiancée of the victim, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton. The mayor then met at a restaurant with about 50 community leaders.
The mayor held a similar meeting Monday at City Hall in which he declared that officers appeared to use "excessive force" when Bell was killed hours before his wedding. He stood by his comments Tuesday.
"I am a civilian. I am not a professional law enforcement officer," he said. "I used the word excessive, and that's fine. That was my personal opinion. It may turn out to be that it was not excessive."
Some have 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.
Official warns of possible unrest
Councilman James Sanders Jr. of Queens said he warned Bloomberg about possible unrest.
"I alerted the mayor that the temperature on the streets has increased to a large degree," he said. "While we are sitting in these meetings, a lot of people are out on the streets."
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said some tension was inevitable because of "the nature of what police departments do — we arrest people, we give them summonses, we're the bearers of bad news, we use force and sometimes we use deadly force."
Police investigators have not interviewed the officers because of a district attorney probe that could result in criminal charges, nor have the officers spoken publicly. An attorney for the detectives' union, Philip Karasyk, has called the incident "a tragedy, but not a crime."
Union officials familiar with the officers' account say at least one undercover detective was convinced there was a gun in the car. They also allege that Bell defied orders to stop and used the vehicle as a weapon, bumping the undercover detective and ramming an unmarked police van.
"They are genuinely concerned and very sympathetic toward the three men who were shot," said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association. "However, they are anxious to speak to the district attorney in Queens and tell their side of the story."
'No rush to judgment'
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said Monday that his office was investigating the Saturday morning shootings and that the results would be presented to a grand jury.
“I will be guided only by the law and the facts,” Brown said in a statement. “I will reach no conclusions until the investigation is complete. There will be no rush to judgment.”
Bell, 23, was killed and two of his friends wounded after a bachelor party at the strip club the night before his wedding. The men were unarmed.
The undercover operation that began 1 a.m. Saturday at the strip club Kalua Cabaret was part of a citywide crackdown sparked by the case of a New Jersey teenager who was abducted, raped and killed following a night of partying earlier this year at a Manhattan nightclub.
Officers authorized ‘to have two drinks’
Police said they had received several complaints about prostitution and drug dealing at Kalua Cabaret before sending in two undercover detectives who left their guns behind because of searches at the door.
The detectives apparently spent the next few hours nursing drinks and mingling with the crowd. Critics have questioned why the officers were allowed to consume alcohol, but police officials said the officers weren’t impaired.
“We authorize them to have two drinks, and not more,” said Kelly.
The situation began to unravel when one of the officers alerted the backup team outside that a man inside was possibly armed. During a later altercation among patrons, police claim they heard a member of Bell’s bachelor party, say, “Yo, get my gun.”
One of the undercover detectives responded by retrieving his weapon and confronting Bell and his friends after they entered their car. Kelly suggested that it was unorthodox for the officer to blow his cover rather than rely on other officers to make the arrest.
“He was still acting in an undercover capacity when he followed the group down the street and apparently took some enforcement action, and that was unusual,” Kelly said.
Union officials insist the detective took out his badge, identified himself and ordered the men to stop before the car, driven by Bell, lurched forward and bumped him. The vehicle then smashed into an unmarked police van, backed up and smashed the van again before the shooting began.
The crashes — along with the fear that one of the men had a gun — seem to be what escalated the situation to a hail of gunfire by five officers.
It is not immediately clear if the men in the car knew they were dealing with a police officer. Friends and family have speculated Bell was frightened by having a gun pointed at his vehicle, possibly crashing the car in a panic.
The NYPD discourages officers from firing on a moving vehicle. But Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, argued that the officers had a right to fire if the car posed a lethal threat.
“The driver of that vehicle — his actions were a contributing factor,” Palladino said. “The amount of shots fired does not spell out excessive to me.”
‘No one gives anyone the right to kill somebody’
In her first public comments on the shooting, Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre, told a radio station Monday that the people who shot her husband shouldn’t be called officers.
“They were murderers, murderers,” she told hip-hop station Power 105.1. “They were not officers. No one gives anyone the right to kill somebody.”
None of the five unidentified officers had ever fired their 16-shot semiautomatic pistols on patrol before that morning, officials said. The undercover officer fired first, squeezing off 11 rounds; another, a 12-year-veteran, fired 31 times, meaning he paused to reload.
Officials said all the officers would have received training to combat against “contagious or sympathetic fire” — when police become disoriented by the sound of friendly fire and blast away at a phantom threat.
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.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.