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NYPD's Record of Restraint Improving

Posted: December 1st, 2006 03:04 PM EDT


Critics of the New York Police Department have seized on the killing of an man outside a strip club in a barrage of detectives' bullets as proof of an undisciplined, gun-happy force.

But statistics give a different picture, backing the NYPD's insistence that its officers, overall, are well-trained and prudent.

The shooting last weekend, killing an unarmed man who was to be married later in the day, brought unwelcome attention to a department that, for better and worse, is often in the headlines.

With more than 37,000 uniformed officers, the NYPD is by far the country's biggest, best-known police force. Its sometimes notorious abuses have become national news, yet its officers have killed fewer people so far this year - 11 - than some police departments in far smaller cities.

"There's always a spotlight on the NYPD," said Maki Haberfeld, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in police training. "But in terms of actual numbers of shootings, and their use of force, there's no doubt in my mind they are one of the best departments (in) the country."

The NYPD's image has shifted dramatically in the past decade. It was lionized in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and vilified before and since for various violent incidents, including the jailhouse torture of Abner Louima in 1997 and the 1999 killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was struck by 19 of the 41 bullets fired at him.

Many questions remain unanswered about the killing of 23-year-old Sean Bell as he left his bachelor party at a Queens strip club. Police officials say five officers fired 50 bullets at a car with Bell and two other black men inside after it struck an undercover officer and an unmarked NYPD minivan. The officers were white, Hispanic and black.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, a frequent skeptic of the NYPD's ability to police itself, has called for an independent investigation of the shooting by the state attorney general's office.

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman noted that citizen complaints filed with a review board about alleged NPYD abuses had increased by 60 percent from 2001 to 2005.

"The shooting has to be looked at in that context," she said. "This is a time when the city should try to learn what went wrong - not be defensive, but try to identify problems and solutions."

Other critics speaking out since the shooting include Amnesty International, civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and a local group of black officers seeking removal of a commander overseeing the undercover unit involved in the shooting.

"This tragedy is not an isolated incident - it is part of a pattern of questionable police tactics and abuse," said Larry Cox of Amnesty International USA.

Yet statistics provided by the NYPD, and gathered by The Associated Press from other police departments, show the New York force in a relatively positive light in terms of shootings.

Though New York officers fatally shot 54 people in 1973 and 30 in 1996, last year's toll was nine people. According to the NYPD, that was a rate of 0.25 killings per 1,000 officers, far lower than in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and other major cities.

So far this year, at least 19 people have been killed by police in Philadelphia and 12 in Las Vegas, which has about 2,170 officers. Police have fatally shot 12 people so far this year in suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County, which with 700,000 residents is one-tenth the size of the New York City.

The Miami police department - which overhauled its use-of-force policies several years ago - says it has had no fatal shootings by its officers this year.

For the NYPD, progress has come on several fronts. Its ranks have diversified markedly with an influx of blacks, Hispanics and women; its officers have been involved in 112 shooting incidents so far this year, compared to 318 in 1996.

"Our officers have shown, I think, tremendous restraint over time involving the use of force," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said this week.

One area of contention is the average number of shots fired per incident - it has swung from 3.08 shots in 2004 to 5.02 last year to 3.8 so far this year. After both Saturday's shooting and the Diallo killing, critics complained of what they considered to be barrages fired by officers equipped with semiautomatic weapons.

Another concern is the deployment of special units, such as those involved in the Diallo case and the Queens shooting.

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who teaches police studies at John Jay, said the NYPD's reputation is deservedly high among most experts, but he also noted that special units had been involved in several of New York's troubling incidents.

"They tend to be in more dangerous situations," Moskos said. "But I don't think the local beat cops would have shot Diallo. They know the area better. There's less fear."

He also said the suspected offenses being investigated at the Queens strip club may not have warranted the fatal barrage of gunfire.

At a news conference Thursday, Kelly announced the formation of a committee to review policies governing undercover officers throughout the NYPD.