NEW YORK – Mayor Michael Bloomberg met Tuesday with the family of a man killed outside a strip club on his wedding day by a barrage of police gunfire, the second straight day Bloomberg has reached out to angry community members.
The 50-bullet police volley — likened to a "firing squad" by the Rev. Al Sharpton — killed 23-year-old Sean Bell after his bachelor party, wounded two of his friends and ignited concerns over police tactics and firepower. The three men were unarmed.
Bloomberg went to the family's church in Queens and met with Bell's fiancee and father, and with Sharpton. The mayor then met again with other community leaders.
The meetings were "open, honest and blunt, which is the way it should be," the mayor said later.
On Monday, Bloomberg said the police response seemed "unacceptable" and "inexplicable," but he was steadfast in his support for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who has been denounced by some critics since the shooting.
Of the victims, Bloomberg said Monday: "There is no evidence that they were doing anything wrong," referring to what led up to the moment their car struck an undercover officer outside the nightclub.
In contrast to Bloomberg's outreach, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was hounded for what some viewed as a slow response to the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who was shot 19 times in the entry to his apartment building by four white officers. Those officers were acquitted of criminal charges.
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said Monday his office was investigating the Saturday morning shootings and the results would be presented to a grand jury.
The shooting stemmed from an undercover operation that began 1 a.m. Saturday at the strip club Kalua Cabaret, part of a citywide crackdown sparked by the death of a teenager following a night of partying earlier this year at a Manhattan nightclub.
Police said they had received several complaints about prostitution and drug dealing at the cabaret and sent in two undercover detectives who left their guns behind because of searches at the door.
The detectives apparently spent the next few hours nursing drinks and mingling with the crowd.
Officials said the officers weren't impaired. "We authorize them to have two drinks, and not more," Kelly said.
One of the officers alerted the backup team outside that a man inside was possibly armed. An undercover detective retrieved his weapon and confronted Bell and his friends after they entered their car.
Kelly suggested that it was unorthodox for the officer to blow his cover rather than rely on other officers to make the arrest.
Union officials insist the detective took out his badge, identified himself and ordered the men to stop before the car, driven by Bell, lurched forward and bumped him. The vehicle then smashed into an unmarked police van, backed up and smashed the van again before the shooting began.
The crashes — along with the fear that one of the men had a gun — seem to be what escalated the situation to the hail of gunfire by five officers.
It is not immediately clear if the men in the car knew they were dealing with a police officer. Friends and family speculated Bell got spooked by the officer's gun pointed at his car.
The NYPD discourages officers from firing on a moving vehicle. But Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, argued that the officers had a right to fire if the car posed a lethal threat.
"The driver of that vehicle — his actions were a contributing factor," Palladino said. "The amount of shots fired does not spell out excessive to me."
None of the five officers had fired a 16-shot semiautomatic pistol on patrol before that morning, officials said. The undercover officer shot first, firing 11 rounds; another, a 12-year-veteran, fired 31 times, meaning he reloaded.
Officials said all the officers would have been trained to avoid "contagious or sympathetic fire" — when police become disoriented by the sound of friendly fire and blast away at a phantom threat.
"We stress when officers go to the range that they fire no more than three rounds and then assess what the situation is," Kelly said.
Contagious fire would not be a valid excuse, Sharpton said.
"To say that one gun causes an atmosphere where you keep shooting is to tell me that if one policeman makes a mistake, you could be subjected ... to what amounts to a firing squad," he said.
Joseph Guzman, 31, was shot at least 11 times, and Trent Benefield, 23, was hit three times. Guzman was in critical condition, and Benefield in stable condition Tuesday.