NEW YORK – A plainclothes policeman who drew his gun while chasing someone he had found rummaging through his car was shot and killed by a fellow officer who was driving by and saw the pursuit, the police commissioner said.
Commissioner Raymond Kelly said 25-year-old Omar J. Edwards died after being shot late Thursday within blocks of the Harlem housing police station where he worked.
The shooter was white and Edwards was black, a fact that could raise questions about police use of deadly force in a minority community. And in recent years there have been several cases of off-duty policemen in the New York City area being shot and killed by other officers.
Edwards had just finished his shift around 10:30 p.m. when he headed to his car and saw that the driver's-side window had been smashed and a man was going through the vehicle, Kelly said.
Edwards struggled with the man, who got away from him by slipping out of his sweater, Kelly said. Edwards chased the man up two streets with his gun drawn, he said.
A sergeant and two plainclothes officers in an unmarked police car saw the pursuit and made a U-turn to follow the men, Kelly said. The officers were from the neighboring 25th Precinct anti-crime unit. One of the officers jumped out of the car and fired six times, hitting Edwards twice — once in the arm and once in the chest, he said.
Kelly said Edwards did not fire his weapon. He died at the Harlem Hospital Center about an hour after the shooting.
Witnesses said they heard several gun shots. Carmen Romero, on her way to work Friday morning, has lived in a nearby housing project for 26 years and said the shots sounded as if they were next to her window.
She said she and others in the area have been debating what role the race of the victim might have played in the shooting.
"I think they just saw a guy with a gun. How's that cop (who shot him) supposed to know" he was a police officer, she said. On the other hand, she said, it could have been because the cop was black.
"I'm not saying it was," she said. "They see a black guy with a gun. All the white cop saw was a black man with a gun. Pow, pow, pow."
The Rev. Al Sharpton said he got calls shortly after the shooting "from black officers who were at the precinct and were alarmed by the shooting of Omar Edwards."
The civil rights activist said he and his National Action Network "are completely concerned of a growing pattern of black officers being killed with the assumption that they are the criminals."
"This calls for federal investigation and intervention to sort out the facts and bring about a just resolve," Sharpton said in a statement. "Can police investigate themselves fairly and impartially? It would seem very difficult at best and unlikely in fact."
It was unclear whether the officers identified themselves. The name of the officer who fired the shots has not been released, but Kelly said he had worked at the NYPD for four years.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on his radio show Friday that investigators were reviewing security tapes and interviewing witnesses, and said the shooting was not deliberate. Investigators were also questioning the man Edwards had been chasing.
"The only thing that can come out of this is to improve procedures so perhaps it doesn't happen again," Bloomberg said. "We all know policing is a dangerous job and accidents happen when people have guns in their hands, even legal guns in this case which they are authorized and trained to use."
Kelly said Edwards had been on the force for two years and worked in the housing bureau. He was recently married and had two young children. His father-in-law has been a police officer for 19 years.
On Friday, police blanketed the shooting scene. A stretch of 125th Street, a major thoroughfare, was blocked off. People passing in cars and waiting for buses tried to get a glimpse beyond the yellow crime-scene tape; some asked each other what was going on.
The shooting recalled other cases of off-duty policemen being shot and killed by fellow officers.
In 2008, a black, off-duty Mount Vernon police officer was killed by a Westchester County policeman while holding a gun on an assault suspect in suburban White Plains. A grand jury found the victim had failed to identify himself as an officer. County officers — one white, one black and two Hispanic — were cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury.
In 2006, a New York City police officer, Eric Hernandez, was shot and killed by an on-duty patrolman who was responding to an attack at a White Castle in the Bronx.