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Police Acquittal Heightens Tensions in N.Y.C.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Three New York City police officers have been cleared of all charges in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell. Bell was the unarmed man who was shot with a hail of 50 bullets on his wedding day. Two of his friends were injured in the shooting. The case has been an emotional one in New York, raising questions about the use of force and fire power by the NYPD.

As NPR's Robert Smith reports the not guilty verdict for the officers only heightened tensions over the incident.

ROBERT SMITH: Sean Bell's mother cried when the verdict was read. The woman Bell was to marry walked out of the courtroom. One of Bell's friends shot by the officers that night bolted out the front door of the Queens Courthouse. Trent Benefield pushed through the crowd as people cried and screamed out around him. Hundreds of spectators, mostly African-American had been gathering all morning. Now, the crowd was angry.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

Unidentified Woman: Guilty.

Unidentified Man: They're not guilty.

SMITH: For two months, New York City has been following the trial of the three undercover detectives: Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper. There were the dramatic facts of the case - how Sean Bell and his friends had left the bachelor party at the Queens nightclub, how the officers thought there was a gun, how Bell had tried to drive away but ended up hitting an officer, the 50 bullets. The three young men were black, as were two of the officers who fired the shots, but outside the courthouse Leroy Gadsen of the NAACP argued that there was no justice for people of color.

Mr. LEROY GADSDEN (President, Jamaica NAACP): In this courthouse for the past eight weeks, we have not heard one testimony. Not one testimony of any threat these young men posed to the police but anybody else. We haven't heard of any of these men having a gun, yet still we hear a verdict of not guilty.

SMITH: Inside the courtroom, the judge explained his verdict saying that the police officers' stories were more credible than the testimony of Sean Bell's friends. The three detectives left the courthouse through another door so they wouldn't encounter the crowd. Later, they spoke briefly to the media. None of them seemed to be celebrating the verdict. But only Detective Marc Cooper expressed regret.

Detective MARC COOPER (New York City Police Department): I'd like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy. I'd like to thank the Lord, my savior for today. It's just started my life back.

SMITH: The case and the acquittal brought back the memories of another New York City police shooting, an unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot in the barrage of 41 bullets in 1999. After those white officers were acquitted, the city exploded in protest, hundreds were arrested afterwards.

Today, New York City wasn't taking any chances. Police officers blanketed the courthouse and surrounding neighborhood. All week long Mayor Michael Bloomberg downplayed the chance of violence. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton, who represents the family of Sean Bell, called for any protest to be peaceful.

After the verdict, Sharpton escorted Sean Bell's fiancee out of the courthouse without talking to reporters. Later, on his syndicated radio show, he called for acts of civil disobedience this weekend.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (American Baptist Minister, Social Justice Activist): What we saw in court today was not a miscarriage of justice. Justice didn't miscarry, this was an abortion of justice. Justice was aborted.

SMITH: But justice may not be finished with the case of Sean Bell. The relatives of the victims have sued the city and the FBI and Department of Justice will review the case for any civil rights violations.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.