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March 20, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
New York Times

Point-Blank Perspective

By ROBERT LEUCI

Saunderstown, R.I.

TOO often, too many of us see into things what we want to see, read into things what we want to read, and in the end, believe what we want to believe. It’s a very human foible, and one we’ve been seeing a lot of since the fatal shooting of Sean Bell, in which three New York police officers have just been indicted on manslaughter and assault charges.

Perhaps a bit of history may help put things in perspective. In August 1997, Officer Justin Volpe surrendered to the authorities to face charges of sexually brutalizing a Haitian immigrant in police custody, Abner Louima, with a toilet plunger during a fit of racist violence.

I didn’t believe a word of it. And I think that my belief, or talent for self-delusion or what have you, was not an exception. We’re human, after all, and believe only those things that we can wrap our mind around. I simply could not wrap my mind around such a grotesque incident.

I’d been in Officer Volpe’s position more than once; I understood that sometimes you lose control. Sometimes there is too much anger, too much fear. I’ve said it — shouted it, “If you don’t back up and calm down, I’m going to take this stick and ...”

You had to be there.

A street, an entire neighborhood, gone insane, a world of hostility and savagery, the threats of violence everywhere, the night exploding with bottles and bricks, and I was going through emotions probably similar to what Custer felt at the Little Big Horn. “Back up,” I hear myself shouting. “If you don’t, I’ll take this stick ...”

No, I never did it. But I certainly could understand the threat, if not the reality.

I knew Justin Volpe’s father, Robert Volpe. We were detectives together in the narcotics bureau. A kind man, a fine painter with showings in New York City galleries. There was not an ounce of narrow-mindedness in Bob Volpe — he was a man totally incapable of passing on racism to his son. And the son, Justin, was engaged to a black woman at the time of the Louima case. I defended Justin in radio and TV interviews — it couldn’t have happened, it was unbelievable, beyond belief.

As it turned out I was wrong; in a moment of madness Justin Volpe lost himself to a psychotic impulse and he was irretrievably gone. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Now a man can crack in many ways; Bob Volpe, after visiting his convict son, died of a heart attack.

Tragic, horrible — but an aberration? Hardly. Such things are rooted in the human realities of police work.

Two years later, in early February 1999, a team of plainclothes police officers were patrolling in the Bronx looking for an armed serial rapist. An African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, fit the description. Spotted by the officers, he scooted into a dimly lighted vestibule. There was a surreptitious move in the dark hallway — Mr. Diallo was going for his wallet, or cellphone, nobody knows. From behind came a shout: “Gun — look out, he’s got a gun.”

Officer Edward McMellon was in point-blank range. He fired three times, stepped backward, stumbled and fell, fracturing his tailbone. Seeing their colleague go down, thinking he’d been shot, the other officers opened fire. It was an unmitigated tragic mistake — the police in a matter of seconds fired 41 shots, 19 of which found their mark.

Assassins they were not. Mindless executioners — of course not. When they realized what had happened, in the dark of that hallway, two or three sat on the curb, crying.

Of course, this makes little difference to those like Al Sharpton who have made careers out of demonizing the police. Whenever something like this happens, the professional police haters will hold their rallies at 1 Police Plaza, people will come with signs comparing the department to the Ku Klux Klan. The signs are sometimes clever but always mean-spirited and reflecting a calculated rage; any thinking person knows that they are self-serving nonsense.

Someone once said that a society that makes unwarranted war with its police had better make friends with its criminals.

Sean Bell and I went to the same high school, pitched for the same high-school baseball team — 50 years apart. I look at his picture, a handsome young man with a beautiful fiancée and an adorable child. Tragic, horrible.

Here is what we know. Club Kalua is a topless bar in Jamaica, Queens — a hotbed of narcotics, prostitution, gun sales and under-age drinking. It was the early morning of Nov. 28, that time of night when police officers know that “sporting life” people are out and about.

At the club, an undercover detective overheard that Joseph Guzman, a member of Sean Bell’s party, had a gun and was about to use it. Nothing new for Mr. Guzman; he’d been convicted in an armed robbery during which the victim was shot at.

In the street, the undercover officer walked over to where Mr. Guzman, Mr. Bell and two others sat in Mr. Bell’s car. The officer was wearing his shield on a chain around his neck. He identified himself, saying, “Let me see your hands.”

Using the car as a 3,000-pound weapon, Mr. Bell hit the accelerator, clipped the undercover officer and then, according to witnesses, twice tried to run the officer down. Then the car slammed into an unmarked police van. At some point, the officer fired his weapon. The other officers, believing they were under attack, also fired their guns, eventually unloading 50 rounds and killing Mr. Bell.

You had to be there, but ask yourself, what would you have done? Certainly there were mistakes made, terrible life-threatening mistakes. But it was the occupants of that car who made them.

One of these officers now indicted had never fired his gun before, despite having made more than 600 arrests. This is no fool, no trigger-happy John Wayne type; this is a good cop. (It’s also worth noting that we are hearing the usual cries of police racism, even though two of the indicted officers are black.) Empirical data will show you that the Police Department is more cautious with the use of force now than at any time in its history.

There will always be some who want to believe what Mr. Sharpton says, even though they know better. For some reason, they feel an obligation to raise their voices in anger, to march outside 1 Police Plaza in response to events that they — or anyone who wasn’t present outside Club Kalua — know little about. It’s a contradiction, a puzzle.

In practically every police shooting there are two views: the way it looks and the way it really is. Still, one fact will always remain — shootings are always tragic.

Now we will have the trials the police critics have been calling for. I hope but have little faith that they will stop the angry rhetoric and let the juries make their decisions in peace. As for those three men, they can take solace from an ancient cop saying: “I’ll always rather be judged by 12 of my fellow citizens than carried by six of my brother officers.”

Robert Leuci, a former New York Police Department narcotics detective, is the author, most recently, of “All the Centurions: A New York City Cop Remembers His Years on the Street, 1961-1981.”