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The Fear Behind the Badge

Published: April 27, 2008
THE first time I almost shot someone, I wasnít that scared.

It was 1986, and my partner and I had responded to a report of a man waving a knife inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal. When we arrived, I saw the knife in the manís outstretched arm. I drew my weapon, and I yelled at him to drop the knife. My partner began inching his way toward the man, pleading with him to put the knife down. I made up my mind that I was going to shoot if the man lunged toward us. My partner got close enough to swing his nightstick down on the manís arm. The knife fell to the ground and we quickly handcuffed him.

Why wasnít I scared? Because I could see the threat clearly; I knew what I was facing. There were plenty of other times during my 20-year police career, however, when I was afraid. Usually it was when I couldnít clearly see a potential suspect and didnít know if he had a weapon. For a police officer, if a suspect is ignoring your commands and you canít see his hands, you will feel that your life is in danger.

That was the situation that faced the police detectives who shot and killed Sean Bell outside the Club Kalua in Queens on Nov. 25, 2006. So Iím glad that on Friday, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman was able to navigate through the rhetoric of the prosecution and acquit Detectives Gescard F. Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper on manslaughter and all other charges.

Mr. Bell was killed and two of his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were seriously wounded in a fusillade of 50 bullets. The police, who were conducting a prostitution sting, said that Mr. Bell tried to drive over an undercover detective. The officers fired because they thought one of the Bell party had a gun.

Since no gun was found in the vehicle, it is clear that the police officers made a tragic mistake. They even violated department guidelines, which prohibit using deadly force against someone in a vehicle unless he is threatening an officerís life by means other than the vehicle, such as firing a gun at the same time. But in the end, what they did was not criminal.

When police officers are cleared of charges in a tragedy like the Bell shooting, or that of Amadou Diallo in 1999, critics will look elsewhere to assign blame. A common claim is that if the officers arenít to blame, the fault must lie in their training. This is nonsense.

At the time of the Diallo shooting, I was an instructor in the Police Departmentís in-service training unit. I trained more than 1,000 supervisors, using seminars and role-playing exercises in various subjects including deadly physical force. Trust me: training can instill good habits and safe tactics, but you canít control the level of fear, or the individual choice that a person makes about when to pull that trigger. In that position, an officer has seconds to make a life-altering decision: Is my life in imminent danger? How to answer that question canít be taught in a classroom.

That said, I do believe that the first officer to fire his weapon in the Bell case, Detective Isnora, carries a greater moral responsibility than the others. Once he fired, contagious shooting took hold, making it difficult for the others to stop. But this case was not about manslaughter or any other crime. It was about whether the judge believed Detective Isnora when he told the grand jury that he felt his life and the lives of his team members were at stake.

Not many people will ever know what that feels like. Most police officers, myself included, never get shot or even discharge their guns. No one can fairly say that the detectives outside the Kalua were not in a dangerous situation. Some New Yorkers seem to think it wasnít quite dangerous enough. Well, they can debate that for an eternity. Gescard Isnora wasnít afforded such leisure.

For most people exonerated at trial, this story would be over ó but not for the police. The officers still face the prospect of federal charges and departmental punishment. It makes me very glad I didnít have to shoot that man in the Port Authority. Even though he had a knife, the police are always second-guessed when they use deadly physical force.

In his closing arguments last week, the prosecutor, Charles Testagrossa, said, ďWe ask the police to risk their lives to protect ours.Ē I agree. But they shouldnít have to gamble with them.

Kyle K. Murphy, a former lieutenant in the New York Police Department, is a graduate student in journalism at Columbia.