Congress members came to New York on Monday to once again discuss the possible federal government’s involvement after the verdict of Sean Bell. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers led a community forum about police accountability not only in New York but around the country.
Monday’s meeting comes during the aftermath of the Sean Bell verdict where weeks ago Judge Arthur Cooperman acquitted three NYPD officers for shooting 50 bullets at three unarmed Black men in Queens, killing Bell. The forum also occurred just days after two white police officers racially profiled a Black man sitting in his car who turned out to be Cheif Douglas Zeigler, NYPD’s highest ranking Black officer.
“I say enough is enough,” Conyers said. “We need some action and it comes from the congresspersons that are here. This is not a New York matter anymore; this is not local–it is international. It’s important that we motivate and teach and inspire people throughout this country.”
The forum was held in front of a full house in the auditorium of the U.S. Customs House. Sitting in the audience were members of the Bell Family including Sean’s parents and fiance Nicole Paultre-Bell, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield. Councilmember Charles Barron and Rev. Herbert Daughtry were also in the crowd.
Ten members of congress listened to testimony from expert witnesses and community representatives during the three-hour meeting. The congressional panel included Reps. Gregory Meeks, Charlie Rangel, Ed Towns and Jerrold Nadler. Witnesses included Rev. Al Shapton, New York NAACP Pres. Hazel Dukes and National Action Network Attorney Michael Hardy. Testimony also came from legal experts.
“It is clear that at the state and local level we need a thorough investigation of the NYPD to root out the policy and practices that create the culture of death and disrespect for our communities,” Dukes said. “We must build trust between police departments and the people and hold them accountable for the actions they take in our communities.”
Neither Police Commissioner Ray Kelly nor representatives from the NYPD were at the forum. Reports indicate that Kelly said that he was not invited. Releases advertising the meeting, however, did indicate that Kelly was invited.
Sharpton said that the NYPD does not take the federal government seriously. “They [the NYPD] believe we’ll have a forum, that you’ll go back to Washington and nothing will happen,” he said to the congressmen. “And just like they don’t take you seriously, they don’t take us seriously. It doesn’t matter if you are Chief Zeigler or Joe Guzman–they feel if they do wrong nothing will happen. Until something happens to show them they are not above the law, this will continue.”
Sharpton recommended cutting off federal money to any police department, starting in New York, that cannot repair unfair law enforcement practices and explain why such practices happen. In terms of posing a safety threat to citizens if police money were cut, Sharpton said it would be detrimental if their budget were maintained in a way that is not fair and equitable.
Panelists from both sides gave five-minute testimonies about the growing problem of police brutality around the country. References to the previous police killing of Amadou Diallo had witnesses telling congressional members they were tired of going back to square one. Issues of the alarming number of times Blacks and Latinos are stopped by police and the number of Blacks in managerial positions within the NYPD were also raised.
The New York Civil Liberties Union released an analysis earlier this month outlining the severity of racial profiling by the police. The reports said that during a period of two years, 90 percent of people shot by officers were Black or Latino. At the end of 2007, only 3.7 percent of NYPD officers ranked above captain were Black, and 84.3 percent were white males.
“This forum was a preliminary to what Chairman Conyers is going to do in Washington, D.C.,” Meeks said. “The more we can keep the spotlight on what is taking place here the more likelihood that we can ultimately receive some justice for Sean Bell and, above and beyond that, have a pattern and practice investigation of the New York City Police Department.”