Sean Bell

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Several people have asked me what I think about the acquittal of the four New York City police officers who shot and killed unarmed groom-to-be Sean Bell. I guess I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. We’ll never know exactly what happened, but I’d wager to guess that if four men not wearing badges were to unload 50 rounds into another, unarmed group of men, killing one and sending stray bullets all over the neighborhood, they wouldn’t have escaped without being convicted of a single crime.

On the other hand, I’m having a hard time seeing how…uh…capitalism is to blame. This is what happens to people who read too much Naomi Klein.

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42 Responses to “Sean Bell”

  1. #1 |  Gregory Peckory | 

    My take on the whole this is, it has more to do with the collective minds of present society’s love of violence than it does with racism. After all two of the three cops where African American. What is apparent is the lack of accountability. Which shows that power has supreme rule over the law.

  2. #2 |  La Rana | 

    I’d be interested to see you actually tackle Naomi Klein’s arguments rather than snidely dismissing them. The only thing I’ve seen on your site that even attempted to, ya know, rebut her arguments, was a poorly made/argued/executed video defending the honor of Milton Friedman. Surely there is more substance to your disagreements.

  3. #3 |  Erin | 

    My assumption (as a lawyer) is that the Queens DA really, really must have screwed up if he couldn’t prove a single count against any of the three cops on trial. If there’d been a jury trial I might have blamed bias or a faulty system, but I am pretty confident in a judge’s ability to rule based only on the evidence presented at trial. What a shame for the Bell family.

  4. #4 |  ceanf | 

    I blame the prosecutors for losing this case. Of course state is not going to go after police officers in trial as aggressively as a normal citizen. And in this day in age, there is very little distinction between prosecutors and police. From the article, it appears that the prosecutors took the angle that the police should have assessed the situation better and waited. Thats all they could come up with? Ha! The prosecutors, in my mind, were protecting the police by trying to obtain a conviction with such a poor argument. And they knew it.

  5. #5 |  Matt Moore | 

    la rana – All of the links in this post tackle the Naomi Klein idiocy head-on.

  6. #6 |  La Rana | 

    Thanks for trying to help Matt, but neither that post nor any of the links does what you say they do. They are either indirect generalizations or more defenses of Friedman’s honor.

    I haven’t gone looking for a formal critique, so I’m certainly to blame for not finding one, I just thought it odd that our host sees fit to mock something for which he has provided us no reason to mock.

  7. #7 |  TGGP | 

    I argue with Kevin Carson over the merit’s of Naomi Klein here.

  8. #8 |  KBCraig | 

    More evidence that when the government puts itself on trial, the government wins.

  9. #9 |  La Rana | 

    Thanks TGGP, but what I am really after is a critique of “disaster capitalism” or the general use of free-market notions to benefit preferred corporate interests. That, I thought, was the import of her book, yet few critiques address it, preferring to defend Milton Friedman’s honor instead.

    The reason I am interested is because if she’s right about this phenomenon (a point she is not nearly original in making), then defenders of free-markets must retreat to the position of being in favor of free-markets, but not how they are implemented in real life; obviously a much weaker position.

  10. #10 |  F4GIB | 

    “In his ruling Friday, Justice Arthur Cooperman said inconsistent testimony, courtroom demeanor and rap sheets of the prosecution witnesses — mainly Bell’s friends — ‘had the effect of eviscerating’ their credibility. ‘At times, the testimony just didn’t make sense,’ the judge said.”

    This is a case involving the NYPD tried before an elected NYC Judge by an NYC elected prosecutor in NYC. Did anyone expect a conviction? The prosecution deliberately “tanked” the case by not properly preparing and presenting their witnesses. It’s easy, any veteran prosecutor can do it.

  11. #11 |  TGGP | 

    La Rana, Murray Rothbard wrote about how and how not to de-socialize here.

    The general critique of Klein is not simply that Milton Friedman was alright but that she’s spewing nonsense. She tries to conflate torture with economic policies formulated by Sachs (not that she uses his name) on the basis of their use of the word “shock”. She tries to associate crises with neo-liberalism when one could just as easily attribute the New Deal to the Great Depression (which is probably what Friedman’s quote on change was referring to, and was positive rather than normative). A good pre-SD critique of Klein from an old establishment left perspective is in “The Rebel Sell“. Those guys actually put a lot of thought into it, which in my view makes them a lot more frightening.

  12. #12 |  James | 

    Radley, this touches on an issue I would love to see you address deeply: the amount of training that police officers are given into the use of force. It seems to me that these repeated “overkill” incidents suggest that even as we are increasing the militarization of police forces, we are giving them deeply inadequate training in both the tactical use of force and in preparation for stressful situations. We seem to have little trouble training the panic out of our Marines and our Army; shouldn’t we invest the same training in our police officers who will be spending much of their lives at that job?

  13. #13 |  Alex | 

    “The general critique of Klein is not simply that Milton Friedman was alright but that she’s spewing nonsense.”

    I was going to say something similiar until I saw this.

    As an ex-soldier, I generally agree with you point, but I think the issue is more complicated. The panic that’s trained out of soldiers and marines is more in the vein of how not to shit your pants. It’s ultimately focused on how to do your job (which is often to kill) and how to depend on your fellow soldiers when it hits the fan. For cops we want them to have the opposite response. I could easily mash out 20 pages on this, but, to make a long story short, stuff like this appears to be more a result of culture than the amount of training IMO. Also, you have to keep in mind that when we’re not in war, soldiers and marines train all day every day but cops have an actual job to do.

    Btw, there’s a recent Free Will episode on Bloggingheads with a former cop of sorts that you guys should check out.

  14. #14 |  Marty | 

    Radley, I can only offer a guess, but I suspect that if one group of unarmed men were driving a car at you and your friends, and you and your friends fired rounds at the car after also hearing that one of them, in the car had a gun you have a good shot of a not guilty verdict. Either from a jury or judge.

    Radley it depends on the circumstances in each case.

    @Erin, I am sure you are a great lawyer and would have done much better, than the ADA considering you have all the evidence you need from newspaper account. This Judege has ruled against cops before in force cases.

  15. #15 |  ceanf | 


    An ordinary citizen in the same situation as that police officer would NOT, under pretty much any circumstances, be acquitted. Maybe the manslaughter charges wouldn’t fly, but a reckless endangerment charge (for the 50+ bullets) or something along those lines would definitely be in order. But when you are a police officer, your life becomes more important than a citizen’s, and you have the right to kill if you feel even slightly threatened. The fact is, this under cover police officer had no business following Bell and his friends because he ‘overheard’ something. He is solely responsible for the chain of events that lead to his life being threatened and Sean Bell’s death.

  16. #16 |  Marty | 

    You are right a reckless charge would be in order, as was the case here. Then you present facts to the jury or judge.

    And yes, the undercover does have business to follow somebody based on what he heard.

    These cops may be lose in civil hearing but they are not guilty in a criminal court.

    The amount of bullets does not matter, you can be reckless with one bullet.

  17. #17 |  JJH2 | 

    “Capitalist Courts” rhetoric is just a riff on the theme that the government and police treat people differently based on class and race – which happens to be a recurring theme in Radley’s work as well. If you’re going to start from the assumption that capitalism really and truly “means” “laissez-faire” or “the free market,” against the weight of hundreds of years of evidence that suggests just the opposite – that capitalism has historically been a system of state privilege on behalf of the capitalist class (or political capitalists) against the rest of society, well, the error isn’t hard to spot.

    If YOU want to use “capitalism” to mean “the free market” – that’s fine, but that’s not how the term has historically been understood. All modern capitalist and mixed economies are the result of wide-spread, deliberately, government intervention in the economy, and to pretend otherwise is just historical ignorance. I’ve said it before, but if the modern libertarian movement, of which I proudly consider myself a part, wants to become a broad-based mass movement, you better start taking seriously the concerns and criticisms of the anti-authoritarian left, and at least try to meet them half way by engaging in a dialog of _ideas_ instead of buzzwords.

  18. #18 |  JCoke | 

    you can be reckless with one bullet.

    50 bullets is reckless.

  19. #19 |  Skip Oliva | 

    A couple of thoughts —

    1. Maybe I missed it, but when shootings like this happen, you never see or hear from “gun control” advocates. Seems like riddling an unarmed man with 50 or so bullets presents a strong argument for disarming the cops. (And yes, I’m being facetious–“gun control” really means gun monopolist.)

    2. There’s an inherent conflict of interest in allowing a New York Supreme Court Justice to unilaterally decide a criminal case involving the police. A justice has every incentive to acquit. I know that I’d be inclined to acquit for fear of police retaliation. Unlike 12 jurors, the justice is not anonymous. (And yes, a justice might also fear community retaliation for an acquittal, but given the propensity of New York police to, I dunno, riddle unarmed folks with bullets, the threat from a conviction would seem to outweigh the threat from an acquittal.)

  20. #20 |  James | 

    Alex –

    I agree the two things are not entirely synonymous, but they don’t have to be. Whatever incremental improvements are possible ought to be investigated. Former Delta Sgt. Paul Howe (one of the lead characters in “Black Hawk Down”) now runs a profitable business in Texas giving advanced tactical firearms training to police officers. Howe claims (as he naturally would) that this training greatly improves results, but even in the improvement is only moderate, it could help avoid the extent of the damage these incidents cause.

  21. #21 |  JustinC |

    I guess we’re way out in left field on this one guys.

  22. #22 |  La Rana | 

    TGGP, I’m afraid you’ve still not answered my question. Friedman good, her analogy bad. Got it. Rothbard can prattle on forever about theoretical desocialization (though skipping the dramatic problems inherent in markets with inelastic demand, one notes), but I am interested in real-world history and implications. In that regard, it’s starting to become clear why no one has an answer.

  23. #23 |  JJH2 | 


    Citing to the Merriam-Webster dictionary – which gives a brief, layman’s snapshot of conventional modern usage, doesn’t tell you anything about the long, storied, contested history of the term. For a very brief outline, you could look at the wikipedia capitalism page, which gives you a hint at the historical context of the debate. But even that leaves a lot out – the periods of supposed greatest laissez-faire movement, in industrializing Britain, were actually pushed along by an interventionist British state which stole peasant land through the Enclosure laws and outlawed the production of goods at home through various legal pretexts – all o the advantage of industrial capitalists. Similarly, in the US, industrial capitalism was predicated on enormous State intervention, particularly in the realm of infrastructure (roads, railroads, etc), and the artificial scarcity of land through governments claiming all the good stuff and then parceling it out via sweetheart deals to large industrialists.

  24. #24 |  jaimito | 

    I really have to ask James… how is one bullet any less destructive than fifty when the guy winds up dead?

    Larping some Counterstrike for a weekend does not improve the quality of a community service based organization.

  25. #25 |  James | 

    jaimito –

    Well, it isn’t. But of course, one bullet is a lot less likely to result in the guy winding up dead. And further, two of the charges in this case were for reckless endangerment, not the death of Bell, and that is an important issue too.

    One of the cases I can first remember reading here was about a Virginia man (whose name I sadly cannot recall) who was killed in Virginia on his front lawn by a supposedly “accidental” discharge from a SWAT team member’s weapon. That’s an avoidable event.

  26. #26 |  TGGP | 

    La Rana, I apologize for not answering your question but I am having trouble understanding what your question actually is. You at first said you wanted a response to Klein’s argument. The response is that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about (the Friedman quote is not a defense of Friedman but a critique of her proposed relationship between crises and neo-liberalism) and her arguments have an extremely flimsy basis, like the shared use of the word “shock”. If the Rothbard link was too theoretical for you, check out Comparing Apples: Normalcy, Russia and the Remaining Post-Socialist World, which contrasts actually existing privatization in different post-Soviet countries.

  27. #27 |  La Rana | 

    Let’s start here: Why is “her proposed relationship between crises and neo-liberalism” incorrect? It’s one thing to respond that neo-liberalism has not sought crises to impose itself, but quite another to argue that it hasn’t occurred. See the experiences of dozens of South American, Asian, and now Middle-Eastern countries. I might add that it seems to have occurred as if neo-liberalism has sought crises to impose itself. That doesn’t validate her thesis, but it seriously undermines critiques of the same.

    The problem with the Rothbard is not that its too theoretical, but that its only theoretical.

  28. #28 |  Mrs. C | 


    The VA man whose name you sadly cannot recall…is my son…and I understand the heartache the Bell family is left with…and I offer my condolences to them and and my prayers for their son and their family.

  29. #29 |  James | 

    Mrs. C. – My sincere condolences on your loss. And I also apologize if my mention of the tragedy involving your son caused you any further pain. Thank you very much for providing the link to the website for him.

  30. #30 |  TGGP | 

    Why is “her proposed relationship between crises and neo-liberalism” incorrect
    A crisis is likely to result in change (not necessarily for rational reasons). There is no reason to assume the form that change takes will be neo-liberalism. The Great Depression, for example, led to the New Deal and defeats during World War 1 led to the Russian Revolution. Bryan Caplan can be considered a neo-liberal and in his The Idea Trap he theorizes that a crisis makes the political atmosphere less congenial to neo-liberalism.

    it hasn’t occurred
    I’m not arguing that. I’m arguing that it is no more likely (and for Caplan’s reasons, less) to lead to neo-liberalism than the opposite.

    Asian, and now Middle-Eastern countries
    Which ones specifically?

    I might add that it seems to have occurred as if neo-liberalism has sought crises to impose itself
    Seems to who? That’s a subjective impression that counts for little.

    The problem with the Rothbard is not that its too theoretical, but that its only theoretical.
    So if you wanted something less than 100% theoretical, it was too theoretical. What did you think of Comparing Apples?

    Oddly enough, Kevin Carson, the self-described anti-capitalist whose praise for Klein’s book I linked to, is a big Rothbard fan and favorably cites the piece I linked to in his review of The Shock Doctrine.

  31. #31 |  Mrs. C | 

    James…my pain will be with me forever…it is not worsened by those who remember…what happened…so unnecessarily…to my son…and our family…in fact…I thank you for recognizing…that it should not have happened…and I appreciate your condolences.

    I am disheartened however…whenever I read…about other families…who have also…lost their loved ones…for no good reason…at the hands of leo’s…who either get caught up in bad departmental policies…perhaps are poorly trained…or are overly aggressive…just because…and if there is no public outcry…to challenge and hold accountable…those who are in positions of power…regretably these avoidable events…will continue to happen.

  32. #32 |  bear | 

    Mrs. C,

    I followed your family’s saga as it occurred, and feel privledged to offer my belated condolences now. I hope you to know that I and many others also felt grief at the situation and it’s follow up. You were not alone ma’am, and still have the gratitude of a greatful many for your struggles.

    It has been a long time since the last up date. Has the pursuit of legal accountability stopped? Have you ever spoken to the police officer in question? Legal or otherwise this is the man ultimately accountable….I’ll remind the board that he was not a SWAT officer, and was dealing exclusively with decidedly non violent matters.

    Mrs. C, I think about your son and family occasionally, and it’s always a good thought.


  33. #33 |  bear | 

    My BAD!!!

    He was SWAT…which should make him more accountable for his actions but regardless, dealing with garden variety, non-violent, no swat, or weapons needed matters.


  34. #34 |  Mrs. C | 

    Bear…the answer to your first question is NO…and the second…our lawyers have deposed him.

    We have had to do all our own investigating…and will be updating our site soon…with all that has taken place in these last thirteen months…which is when we last posted.

    At the moment we are waiting on the judge for her written opinion…to our motion asking her to alter and amend…her decision that dismissed…the county…police chief…and the officer who put together and executed the plan…from our suit.

    Everything in the legal system moves slowly…and we have no intention…of abandoning our promise to our son.

    Sal was a terrific human being…very loved….and respected…by all of us…who had the privilege to know him…and with God’s help… our hope for justice…is continuing forward.

    We owe it to my son…and the residents of our county.

    Again…thank you for your thoughts and condolences…it helps to know that others care.

    God bless you.

  35. #35 |  AllenC | 

    To claim Sean Bell was unarmed is disingenous. He was operating a motor vehicle, and if any of the officers genuinely perceived (correctly or not) that Bell was trying to hit them with that motor vehicle, then the vehicle becomes a weapon. In that case, the officers would have been justified in opening fire to stop the attack. And as long as the vehicle continues to be a threat, the total number of rounds fired is irrelevant.

    The round counts from the individual officers do seem a little disparate. Three of the four officers fired only a few rounds each. The fourth fired 31 rounds, which seems odd to me. But that’s only one magazine change, and it is possible that a skilled handgunner can put that many rounds on a target in the course of a gunfight. (I’ve seem similarly impressive feats at some pistol matches I’ve attended.)

  36. #36 |  JJH2 | 

    Right. Claiming Sean Bell was unarmed is disingenuous because he DIDN’T have a gun… while the Official, Ever-Changing Story that the party DID have a gun, and that the gun was fired, and that a mysterious 4th party then spirited the gun away from the crime scene, which was never recovered, and which no forensic examination of the scene discovered evidence of — that’s not disingenuous at all! Thank goodness we have a Professional Cadre of Police Apologists on hand to justify every police action, no matter how heinous.

  37. #37 |  JJH2 | 

    PS: It’s not a “gunfight” when only one group has guns and the others are locked instead a steel coffin, being murdered with hot lead. That’s a massacre.

  38. #38 |  AllenC | 

    JJH2 – I make no claim regarding NYPD’s actions leading up to or following the shooting. I am merely observing that it is inappropriate to call someone unarmed if that person is intentionally driving a motor vehicle with intent harm someone else. That constitutes lethal force, even at low speeds. And the officers only have to sincerely believe that Bell intended to run someone down for them to be authorized to use lethal force to stop the attack.

    I do not claim Bell intended to run anyone down, and I do not claim the officers believed Bell intended to do so. I was not there, and I am not a mind reader. I am merely pointing out in our discussion of the matter that it is misleading and extremely one-sided to deny that Bell had very credible means at hand to kill or gravely injure those officers or any bystander. He was, in fact, NOT unarmed.

    The fact that he was not unarmed needs to be considered when evaluating the officers’ actions, though it is not sufficient in and of itself to clear them.

    On a personal note, other than my one post here (and my post on the Oberwetter case), you don’t know me, and your ad hominem attacks are completely inappropriate. Calm down, re-read my post, and put some thought into your replies.

  39. #39 |  JJH2 | 


    First, a motor vehicle may obviously be used as a deadly weapon (justifiably or not), but simply being a motor vehicle driver has never been understood to make a person “armed” in any conventional sense. “Arms” actually has a particular meaning, and “driving a car” is not included within it. Does the right to “keep and bear arms” safeguard the right to drive a car? Seems a stretch.

    Second, buttressing the point above, your appeals to “intent” (of the driver) and “belief” (of the officers) are irrelevant. Being “armed” is simply being in the appropriate type of possession of the appropriate type of thing. A person is “armed” with a gun _regardless of whether they intend to hurt anyone with it_ and _regardless of whether the police think they intend to hurt anyone with it_. Being armed does not rely on anybody’s internal mental state.

  40. #40 |  AllenC | 

    JJH2 – Being armed does go to intent with some objects. True, simply being in your car does not constitute being armed. Nor does, say, carrying a heavy flashlight. However, once a person threatens or assaults someone else with any item that can cause harm, the item becomes a weapon, and and the person is then considered armed. My point in this case is that, by referring to Mr. Bell as “unarmed” when he was in a moving car completely dismisses the fact that he had immediate access to a potential lethal weapon, and ignores the very real possibility that the officers may have genuinely believed that their lives were in danger. Hence, my objection.

    If Mr. Bell was in fact accelerating toward one of the officers and nearly hit him, as the offer has reported, then the vehicle is by law a deadly weapon, and thus Mr. Bell was armed, and lethal force can be used. Now, that is a big if, and is at the very heart of this case. If he were accelerating away from everyone, or sitting in his parked car, then the vehicle could not be construed as a weapon, and we have a very different fact pattern.

  41. #41 |  JJH2 | 


    I’m not sure what “being armed does go to intent with some objects” is supposed to mean.

    In any case, your unpersuasive, and unsupported legal conclusions aside, your claim was that it was “disingenuous” to say that Bell was “unarmed.” In fact, even if your claim that being “armed” is a result of the intent of the driver is meritorious (and I don’t think it is), then that’s still no evidence that the claim is “disingenuous” – it simply reflects a JUDGMENT about the facts of the case and the likelihood of the various stories told by the police, the victims, and the bystanders.

  42. #42 |  A leftist critique of the Shock Doctrine « Entitled to an Opinion | 

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