Sean Bell Killing: We Need Action Not Words

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Bloomberg won kudos for describing the shooting as "inexplicable" and "unacceptable" and "excessive" and for respecting the wishes of the Bell family by not attending Sean's funeral. He had instead sent Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, a former CEO of the New York Urban League, to be the Administration's representative.

 

(Urban League chief wants action to match words).

The recent tragic police shooting of 23-year-old Sean Bell near a Queens strip club on the morning of his wedding gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg a golden opportunity to show off his race-relations skills and for Rev. Al
Sharpton to prove he could reach out across the aisle in hopes of defusing a potentially explosive situation.

Sharpton, a veteran of previous police-conduct incidents, rose to the occasion within hours of the tragedy, emerging as official point person for the Bell family. He immediately consoled the victims and their
family and friends, arranged two news conferences, planned a community rally and courted the mayor, who in his last election did well with middle-class minority voters around the neighborhood where the shooting
occurred.

The Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page described Sharpton as a natural choice to take the leadership role in this situation. "Now, just ask yourself: If police shot your son to death before his wedding and
wounded two friends after firing 50 shots into their car and there was no gun found in their car, whom would you call?" he wrote recently.

Unlike his predecessors, Bloomberg decided to read from a different playbook than his some of his predecessors - namely Rudolph Giuliani and Ed Koch, whose Administrations were punctuated by unsettling racial incidents. With the help of and on the recommendation of Sharpton, the mayor convened a summit of community leaders in an effort to quell possible tensions emerging between the New York City Police Department and the African-American community, where the use of excessive force by police seems to occur more frequently at least anecdotally than in other
communities.

Bloomberg won kudos for describing the shooting as "inexplicable" and "unacceptable" and "excessive" and for respecting the wishes of the Bell family by not attending Sean's funeral. He had instead sent Deputy Mayor
Dennis Walcott, a former CEO of the New York Urban League, to be the
Administration's representative.

"What you've seen in the last week between the mayor and the Black elected officials and leaders represents five years of work and  developing relationships with people," observed New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson the city's highest-ranking elected Black official in a December 3 story in The New York Times. "People believe his intentions are good, and I think that goes a long way."  

At a private meeting with Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Sharpton didn't even ask for the commissioner's resignation - he lent his support while at the same time joking that most police
commissioners who garner his support usually get fired, according to the New York Times story.

News of the Bell tragedy quickly opened up old wounds within the African-American community and raised ghosts of previous shootings incidents in which unarmed Black men ended up on the wrong side of the
law's gun. Sharpton and Bloomberg's spirit of cooperation and goodwill may have helped keep those tensions at bay so far but the New York Police Department is doing little to help ensure this delicate balance.

Recent police raids tied to the shooting are starting to test the patience of Black leaders who have been preaching calm to their constituents until a full investigation is completed.  "My role is to try to keep things at an even keel," observed Bishop
Erskine Williams to the New York Times recently. "But at some point they're going to say, 'Rev, what side are you on?' " he added, referring to residents who are angry about how the police investigation is unfolding. "On a scale of 1 to 10, the distrust was a 7. Now it's a 10-and-a-half."

Just days earlier, according to press reports, Williams' son, a friend of Bell's party, was picked up by police on a traffic summons. He was one of several people who knew Bell brought in for questioning. Since
the shooting, the police seem to be in a frantic search for vindication in their efforts to uncover potentially non-existing evidence that may justify their hail of 50 bullets upon Bell's car, killing him and injuring two of his friends.
The department is showing little sensitivity for the victims and their families and friends by hauling them in for questions on minor offenses in their zealous quest to find the elusive fourth man who allegedly fled
the scene and owned the gun that prompted undercover officers to open fire.

In a recent column in the New York Daily News, Errol Louis took issue with Black leaders' advocacy of calm in light of recent actions by police: "Patience is not on the agenda, nor should it be. Those counseling calm rarely acknowledge - and perhaps don't know - that frightened, under-trained cops have been treating unarmed black and
Latino residents with deadly aggression for decades," he wrote.

I have to say I'm starting to agree. That is why the National Urban League has called upon the U.S. Justice Department to keep an eye out on the police's tactics in investigating this tragedy. Employing practices
of witness intimidation is hardly a way to get to the bottom of the matter and implement policies to avoid future tragedies.

It's just a matter of time before Black leaders advocating calm will just get up and leave the table. In assessing the significance of Sharpton's light-colored suit in a sea of dark ones at a recent city
hall news conference, Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan summed
up his role in the aftermath of the Bell shooting very aptly.

"Sharpton's butterscotch-colored suit was almost a visual taunt, a signal to onlookers that his presence should not be construed as an indication that he has become part of the team - despite the group
portrait. He has agreed to play by the rules, but do not underestimate him as an adversary," she wrote. 

African Americans may have come to dinner at the mayor's office but that doesn't mean they're obliged to stay until dessert - or even past appetizers. Bloomberg must back his conciliatory efforts up with actions
- not just words.  If the New York Police Department cannot investigate this incident without bias and emotion, the U.S. Justice Department must intervene.

Morial is President and CEO, National Urban League

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