Their Sin? Their Skin

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(Remember Diallo? How many more "mistaken" identity deaths must we stand for?)

On November 25, 2006, hours before he was to be married, Sean Bell was shot and killed in a hail of 50 police bullets. 

Many of the details of the shooting are still unclear, but what is known is that Bell and two companions walked out of a nightclub and got into their car.  Bell drove half a block, turned a corner and struck a black unmarked police minivan. Bell then backed his car up onto a sidewalk, nearly striking an undercover office before shooting forward and hitting the police van again.

When it was over, according to New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, five officers fired a total of 50 rounds at Bell’s car. Bell was struck twice and later pronounced dead.  The front-seat passenger, Joseph Guzman was struck as many as 11 times and is critical condition.  Trent Benefield, the rear-seat passenger was shot three times and is in stable condition.

NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially said “We know that the N.Y.P.D. officers had reason to believe an altercation involving a firearm was about to happen and were trying to stop it.�  Ironically, no firearm was found in Mr. Bell’s vehicle or on any of the victims.  Once again, what the officers believed was wrong, resulting in another fatality. Bloomberg himself, in a later news conference, said the shooting appeared to be “excessive.�

What led the officers to believe that these men of color would be involved with a firearm? Did the officers wait to see any evidence of a firearm? Did they announce themselves as police officers before they started shooting?  Did Bell have any reason to know that he had struck a police vehicle? Also, why did the police shoot first, without seeing a gun then ask questions later? This takes me to the continual discussion about racism--white supremacy--its perceptions, and emotional responses that we deal with all the time.

Dr. Francis Cress Welsing defines racism (white supremacy) as the local and global power system structured and maintained by persons who classify themselves as white, whether consciously or subconsciously determined; this system consists of patterns of perception, logic, symbol formation, thought, speech, action and emotional response, as conducted simultaneously in all areas people of activity (economics, education, law, etc).  Even though some of the officers involved in this incident were African American, the analysis still applies.

There is a recent history or context in which these events need to be examined.

On February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by four plain-clothes New York Police Department officers. The police thought Diallo fit the description of a serial rapist and approached him. The officers claimed that they loudly identified themselves as NYPD officers and that Diallo ran up the outside steps toward his apartment house doorway at their approach, ignoring their orders to stop and "show his hands." As he reached into his jacket, the officers fired forty-one shots at Diallo, hitting him nineteen times. The investigation found no weapons on Diallo's body; the item he had pulled out of his jacket was not a gun, but a wallet.

On January 28, 2000, a 29 year-old, off-duty, plain clothes African American police officer named Cornel Young, Jr. was shot to death in Providence, Rhode Island while coming to the aid of two fellow officers. The two fellow officers mistook officer Young as a perpetrator and shot him in the chest, head and stomach. Several witnesses said they heard him identify himself as a police officer. Other cops say he did not identify himself.

The two white officers said they did not recognize Young as a fellow officer. They failed to recognize him even though Officer Cornel Young, Jr. was the son of Major Cornel Young, Sr., the highest-ranking African American officer in their police department’s history.  Also, Officer Cornel Young, Jr. and one of the officers who shot him were in the same police academy class. Classes number about 25 cadets and he was not recognized.

On the evening of January 11, 2001 in Oakland, CA, Detective William Wilkins, Jr., a veteran narcotics undercover officer was shot and killed by two rookie officers in another tragic case of mistaken identity.

Detective Wilkins, dressed in plain clothes, had been working on a special operations surveillance detail for the Crime Response Team -not a unit he was normally assigned to, but working on it as a favor to other officers. He was affecting an arrest when the two officers mistook him for the perpetrator and fired 11 rounds at him. It is not clear why the two officers were not aware that there was a plainclothes detective on the scene.

I am not saying that the officers intentionally shot Bell, Guzman, Benefield, Detective Wilkins, Officer Young, Jr. or Diallo because of the color of their skin. The recent history and context in which these events occurred force me to ask, if the perceived perpetrators had been white, would the police officers who shot them have felt so threatened? Would the police officers patterns of perception, logic and symbol formation have been different reacting to a white suspect or threat vs. a Black/Hispanic suspect or threat.  Would this difference in perception have resulted in a different emotional response. Would that different emotional response have given those individuals one more moment, one more instant of consideration, bringing about a different result? Perhaps resulting in their lives being spared?

Why is it that the victims of these mistaken identity shootings are disproportionately people of color? When, as Mayor Bloomberg stated, “officers had reason to believe an altercation involving a firearm was about to happen…� and the individuals are white, do the officers kill first and ask questions later? When the police arrive on the scene and find a white plain clothes officer affecting an arrest, do they kill first and ask questions later? When white plain-clothes officers arrive on the scene as back-up, do other officers shoot first and ask questions later?

Again, we are not dealing with intent, we are dealing with patterns of perception, logic, symbol formation, thought, action and emotional response, resulting in death. How many times have police officers mistaken the identity of white individuals resulting in their deaths?  It's disproportionately black cops and Africans armed with wallets that are getting killed.

Dr. Leon is the Producer/ Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “On With Leonâ€? on XM Satellite Radio Channel 169,  Producer/Host of the television program “Inside The Issues With Wilmer Leonâ€? and a Teaching Associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  Go to  or email: [email protected].

© 2006 InfoWave Communications, LLC.

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