The five cops who fired that night finally told their stories to a grand jury last winter, and in March, the grand jury voted to indict three of them. Oliver and Isnora are charged with manslaughter, Cooper with reckless endangerment. The trial starts this week in Queens.
The accounts of what started the shooting that night split down the usual lines. First, there’s the version told by police on the scene and related by Ray Kelly the next day. They insist that Isnora was wearing his badge around his neck and that, before anything happened, he yelled “Police!” at Bell and his friends. Then Bell (who, they note, was legally drunk) panicked and stomped on the gas pedal. His car lurched forward, tore past Isnora, and smashed into the unmarked police van. Isnora looked through the windshield of Bell’s car and thought he saw Joseph Guzman reaching into the waistband of his pants. Then Isnora shouted “Gun!” and fired. It was all, in their version, a tragic but honest mistake.
Then there’s the version told by Guzman, Benefield, and others who were at the club or on Liverpool Street that night. They say they never saw Isnora’s shield and no one shouted “Police!” They say Bell thought he was being carjacked and did the only sensible thing under the circumstances—hit the gas before the guy with the gun pulled the trigger. Some say it was the police van that slammed into Bell’s car, not the other way around. There was never any gun, they say. The cops just started shooting and wouldn’t stop. It is, in their telling, just another excessive attack by overzealous police—the kind of thing that seems to happen only in communities of color.
In court, the detectives’ lawyers will likely rely heavily on the “fog of war” argument—the idea that police work is dangerous and split-second decisions have to be made, sometimes with tragic, but unintended, results. They also may suggest that Bell and his friends were thugs; Bell’s record of drug and weapons arrests has already made its way into the papers, as have the more substantial rap sheets of Guzman and Benefield. “They’re going to try to damage Bell’s reputation,” says Ken Thompson, a federal prosecutor in the Abner Louima trial. “They were at Club Kalua for a reason. So I think they’ll say, ‘What good upstanding citizen would be there to begin with?’ ” They also may resurrect a theory police had of a fourth man near Bell’s car—a man dressed in a beige jacket who police said might have been carrying a gun. So far, no such person has emerged. “He must be bionic,” Guzman’s fiancée said of the alleged fourth man, “because how could you not get hit with 50 shots?”
The prosecutors will focus on the 50 bullets. If this was an accidental shooting, why keep firing? “The biggest thing with these cases is the visceral reaction that anyone has, no matter what side they fall on, to hearing about 50 shots discharged with no return fire,” says Joe Tacopina, who defended one of the cops in the Louima case. “It sounds excessive.” Even Ray Kelly, two days afterward, called the Bell shooting “unusual.” Why didn’t Isnora and Oliver stop to reassess their targets after firing three rounds, the way department regulations demand? Why didn’t Isnora ask his backup undercover to make the arrest, the way procedure would seem to dictate? And if the cops thought Bell and his friends were getting a gun from the car, why did they wait until the men were in the car to confront them?
Contagious shooting. That’s another theory. Defined in the NYPD patrol guide as “a chain reaction of shooting by other personnel,” the phenomenon had been used to explain the Diallo shooting and other incidents in which gunfire hit the double digits: 125 bullets during a bodega robbery in the Bronx in 1995; 43 shots at one armed man in Queens in 2005; 26 shots at one pit bull in the Bronx in 2006. “It’s sort of like a Pavlovian response,” a retired police captain told CNN after the Bell shooting. “It’s automatic.” Contagious shooting is often invoked by those willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt. “The fog of the moment happens,” a retired NYPD firearms instructor told a reporter a few days after Bell was killed. “Different things happen that people don’t understand.”
The problem with the idea is that it removes free will from the equation. Do the cops just get a pass? Where does instinct end and responsibility take over? How does race factor in? Or plain incompetence? If contagious shooting does exist, Sharpton has suggested, it’s a small comfort to the targets who always seem to be in black neighborhoods: “We become in the middle of a firing squad that we did nothing to cause,” he said. “If anything, that’s even more frightening.”