Our view: Use of force should not go unpunished

Sean Bell was killed in the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2006 – the day he was to marry the mother of his two children – after five New York City police officers fired 50 bullets at the car he was driving.

One of the officers had followed Bell, 23, and his friends out of a nightclub, and when he thought one of the men was getting a gun out of the car, he called for backup.

Intense debate surrounds what happened next. Bell’s friends, two of whom were also wounded, say the detectives drew their weapons but didn’t identify themselves as police. Bell, seeing five armed men pointing guns at his car, panicked and tried to drive away, his friends claim.

The officers say they thought Bell was trying to run them over, so they fired their guns.

Three of the officers were indicted and on Friday, a judge cleared them of all charges. In his decision, he noted that the prosecution failed to prove the shooting unjustified and that he believed the testimonies of the officers over those of Bell’s friends.

The racial issues that underly this case run deep. Bell and his friends were black, but so were two of the three officers on trial. Connections have been drawn to previous cases in New York, including the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was killed by four police officers who fired 41 bullets when they thought he reached for a gun after they knocked on his door in search of a rape suspect. He had in fact been reaching for his wallet.

There is an understandable distrust of police when race is involved in a shooting, and an attempt to delve into that issue could be the subject of several books. So that aside, what worries us most about this case is the precedent the judge set by his ruling.

The idea that it is OK for anyone, even police officers, to fire 50 bullets at anyone is downright frightening.

Lately, the use of physical force by police has come into question. In Warren, a police officer was recently investigated for using an electronic stun gun on a handcuffed woman after a disturbance at a bar in September. And in November, a man who was arrested by Kent police filed a complaint claiming that the officers involved behaved unprofessionally when they used a Taser.

Last week, a man from Chicago died in Oxford, Ohio, after police used a stun gun to subdue him.

There’s no question that the role police officers play in society is a difficult and essential one, albeit complicated. They are under enormous pressure, and the culture of the police force discourages officers from discussing the stress they experience. At times, they rashly defend themselves from perceived threats.

If people keep this in mind when they are approached by police or are arrested, and act appropriately, they may be able to affect how they are treated. Let there be no chance of a perceived threat.

If the culture of the police force were to change to be more supportive, such cases might become less common. But we cannot change it; we can only change our behavior and hope that in time, it leads to a change in theirs.

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.