Officers have raided at least one home, picked up the son of a clergyman for an unpaid ticket and scoured vacant lots with a leave-no-stone-unturned intensity akin to a manhunt in a murder case. But the search has nothing to do with a fugitive killer.
Instead, police are trying to locate a key witness — and perhaps a missing gun — in hopes of explaining why five police officers unleashed a 50-shot barrage that killed a man on his wedding day outside a strip club last week.
Police critics on Friday warned of a backlash: They claim the search has created a climate of fear in a community already outraged by the death of Sean Bell, 23, and the wounding of two other unarmed men who attended his bachelor party at the club.
They say police have concocted a "phantom gunman" in a desperate effort to show that officers were justified in opening fire.
"This kind of police conduct is frightening, and it serves as a chilling impact on those witnesses who want to come forward and simply tell what they saw, what they heard, so that justice can be served," said Charlie King, an attorney who said he represents several potential witnesses, including a man who could be the one intensely sought by police.
Police said clues gathered during a raid on a Queens home suggested the man, identified by his lawyer as 27-year-old Jean Nelson, was with three unarmed men early Nov. 25 moments before officers fired at their car.
Witness denies investigators' claims
The shooting has sparked outrage in the city and brought cries of racism. Bell was black; two of the officers are black, two are white and one is Hispanic.
Nelson, who was detained Thursday but released, saw the shooting, but he "did not have a gun, nor was he in the car as police have suggested," King said.
A law enforcement official said Friday that investigators have taken statements from civilian witnesses that put a fourth man, possibly Nelson, near the car at the time of the shooting. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
The first officer to shoot at Bell's car has claimed that he believed there was a gun in the car and that the men were retrieving it to settle a street dispute. No weapon was found, but police union officials have suggested a fourth man fled with one.
Police "seem hellbent on finding a phantom gunman who didn't exist," King said.
Police picked up the son of the Rev. Lester Williams, the pastor who conducted Bell's funeral, for questioning at 6 a.m. Thursday, using an unpaid $25 ticket as an excuse, King said.
Williams later said that investigators "definitely did strong-arm" his son over why he visited the two wounded men, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, in the hospital.
Police called ‘gun-happy’
The hospitalized survivors also have claimed through their lawyer that a fourth person was never involved. Benefield was in stable condition on Friday and Guzman in critical condition.
Shakeema Chavis, 25, knew Bell from high school and said she was disturbed by the police department's behavior in the search for witnesses in Jamaica, a notoriously crime-plagued neighborhood.
"They're just bullet-happy. They're just gun-happy," she said through tears. "I think 99 percent of the black and Hispanic community would agree with me."
In a statement, police officials insisted that their investigation was appropriate. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking on his weekly radio show, called some of the criticism unfair.
An unidentified undercover officer and four others _ identified as Detectives Mike Oliver, Mark Cooper and Paul Hedley and Officer Mike Carey _ have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a grand jury investigation.
On Friday evening, hundreds of people mourned the slain groom at a funeral held in the same church where he was to be married to his high school sweetheart.
"They took his life, but we can't let them take his legacy," the Rev. Al Sharpton said. "We must give Sean a legacy. A legacy of justice, a legacy of fairness. We don't hate cops, we don't hate race, we hate wrong."