Bell case prompts call for return of special prosecutor

April 27, 2008 4:44:19 PM PDT
Civil rights advocates urged sweeping reforms in the handling of police misconduct and brutality cases in the wake of the acquittal of three officers involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man on his wedding day.They also said they expected Gov. David Paterson to support their proposal for a permanent state-level special prosecutor to investigate such incidents.

"The verdict in the Sean Bell case proves it is almost impossible to successfully prosecute cases of police misconduct, especially in homicide cases," lawyer Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said on Sunday.

Siegel, who remains an outspoken critic on civil rights and law enforcement issues, said the Bell verdict "underscores the need for systemic change in the way New York handles these important and at times high-profile cases and to improve community relations."

In a verdict from the bench on Friday, a state Supreme Court judge in Queens exonerated three police officers in the Nov. 26, 2006, shooting death of Bell outside a nightclub where he had just left his bachelor party. Two of Bell's friends were wounded in the volley of 50 shots fired by the undercover officers and two colleagues; the officers said they thought they were in mortal danger, but no gun was found in Bell's car.

As with previous fatal shooting incidents in which police were absolved of criminal responsibility, the case and the verdict have triggered widespread dismay and calls for protests.

Siegel was joined at a news conference outside police headquarters by state Sen. Eric Adams, D-Brooklyn, and Marq Claxton, a retired police officer who, with Adams, co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.

Adams, a former police captain, said the special prosecutor's office should be reinstated permanently by law. A previous special prosecutor's office was created by former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1974 but was abolished by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1993.

Siegel said the city's five county prosecutors "wanted the limelight for their high-profile cases and Cuomo made a big mistake" by rescinding the executive order.

The special prosecutor should have power to investigate allegations of police misconduct, brutality and corruption, they said. The previous office was created primarily as a result of corruption in the New York Police Department, and that was its primary focus.

Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, whose office prosecuted the Bell shooting case, had said there was no basis for the appointment of a special prosecutor.

Adams also urged new legislation that would give the state attorney general's office power to take immediate control of a crime scene in cases like the Bell shooting, to make sure all evidence is preserved. He said this would protect the officers involved and provide a "true picture" of what happened.

"I don't believe a police department involved in a shooting should be responsible for the crime scene," he said.

Siegel and Adams said they looked for support on the issues from Paterson, who, as a state lawmaker and minority rights spokesman, had been a strong voice in previous police shooting controversies.

"Unless David changes his stripes, he should be very good on this issue," Siegel said.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Sunday he learned of the recommendations through press reports and would review them carefully.

"Like all New Yorkers, the governor takes the issue of police wrongdoing very seriously, but he also believes that the overwhelming majority of police officers perform their duties honorably and conscientiously each and every day," spokeswoman Erin Duggan said.

The advocates also said the NYPD's 13-member Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates allegations against police officers, needed a massive overhaul to become more effective, including replacing department attorneys with the board's own legal unit and extending the statute of limitations on its probes from 18 months to three years, the same time frame for federal civil rights cases.

Meanwhile, more than 200 people, including elected officials and civil rights leaders, gathered at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network in Manhattan to renew calls for U.S. Department of Justice officials to bring federal charges against the three officers.

Sharpton, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial and others said they planned to write U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his assistant for civil rights to request a meeting.

"We wish for the officers to be investigated and prosecuted pursuant to federal laws," Morial said. "Anything less would be incomplete and an injustice."

Also, Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was scheduled to travel to New York on Monday to meet with Bell's family and visit the scene of the shooting, Morial and the others said Sunday. A spokeswoman for Conyers didn't immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.