Friday, August 20, 2010

Harlem gunfight brings police procedures into public eye

The trial of a man accused by police officers of firing shots at cops at a crowded Harlem block party showcases radically divergent narratives of a shockingly violent event that happened in a very public place, and demonstrates the flexibility of the court in its attempt to collect the different accounts in pursuit of justice.

Initial reports indicate that a fight broke out between Angel Alvarez and Luis Soto on a Harlem street early Sunday morning. One man wrestled the other to the ground, at which point a gun was produced, possibly by Soto, who may have shot Alvarez. Police officers responded to the fight and the call of shots fired, converging on the melee from both sides. Officers said Alvarez had possession of a gun and fired at the cops, who returned fire, shooting 46 times. Alvarez suffered 23 bullet wounds, but survived. A police bullet likely killed Soto. Two cops were struck by gunfire, probably fired by other police. Three others were injured by stray bullets.

Alvarez recovered from his injuries, and was placed under arrest. But then the story gets interesting. He was initially charged with criminal possession of a weapon, based on reports that he had held a gun at some point that night, and that one cop said he kicked a silver revolver out of Alvarez's hand after the shootout.

The judge allowed a preliminary hearing, a procedure wherein the judge hears evidence from the prosecution suggesting that they need more time to investigate the shooting, and possibly present new charges to a grand jury, and petitioning the judge to keep Alvarez in jail for another 45 days. It's a rare court occurrence.

Seemingly, the prosecution hopes to gather enough evidence to show Alvarez fired on responding police officers, and therefore charge the defendant with attempted murder. They hoped to bring testimony before the judge suggesting that heavier charges would be forthcoming. But that testimony proved troublesome.

Some of it had to come from responding police officers. But because there is little certainty as to what happened that Sunday morning, it could be suggested that police officers shot indiscriminately at innocents, killing Soto and injuring four others. A police officer taking the stand could be forced to incriminate him or herself. So began negotiations for special immunity from self-incrimination for these officers.

Those negotiations haven't yet yielded fruit. Instead, the prosecution asked the judge to hear from officers not directly involved in the shooting, but who had interacted with officers immediately after the shooting. These officers would be asked what their fellows had told them. Normally, this would be hearsay, and the defense challenged the prosecution on the inclusion of this testimony.

The judge overruled the objection, classifying anything said by one officer to another after the shootout as "excited utterance," and admissible.

The testimony Thursday became even more interesting. The Times covered the examination of Sgt. Philip Terpos, who spoke with Officer Douglas Brightman, after Brightman fired shots at Alvarez:

“I asked Mr. Brightman if Mr. Alvarez was a police officer,” the sergeant said. “He replied he was not.”

“I ended up asking, ‘Did he have a gun? Was he shooting?’” Sergeant Terpos continued. “He said, ‘Yes he did.’ He said, ‘Yes, he shot at me.’”

A short digression: Terpos' first question offers a peek of the world through the eyes of a police sergeant at a nighttime Harlem shooting. If we are to believe Terpos, he wanted foremost to determine the identity - and perhaps the culpability - of the victim. A group of cops fired 46 shots a black man, in a black neighborhood, at night. This description alone has a Pavlovian effect on the memories of even casual observers of New York City politics of the last decade. Amadou Diallo, unarmed, shot 41 times in front of his Bronx apartment in 1999. Sean Bell, unarmed, killed in a hail of 50 bullets in his car in South Queens in 2006. There are others, too. Patrick Dorismond and Malcolm Ferguson, 2000. Ousmane Zongo, 2003. Timothy Stansbury, Jr., 2004. There may be others. More recently the list expanded to include Shem Walker, killed by undercover cops on his mother's front steps in Clinton Hill, and finally Omar Edwards, a black NYPD trainee killed by white police officers in Harlem in the summer of 2009.

Two things:
1. Overall, the NYPD is not a nest of trigger happy cowboys who shoot first and ask questions later. Following the shooting of Sean Bell, the department commissioned a study by RAND into their use of lethal force. The study found that during 2006 only 156 officers out of a force of 37,000 were involved in a firearm-discharge incident. Ruling out two-sided gunfights and officers shooting suspects with knives, and the 30 times officers shot at dogs, there were 47 incidents in which officers discharged their weapons without being fired on. Try to find a cop who's shot his or her gun and you'll have to ask a lot of them before you find one.

2. The shootings victims I named above are black men, usually killed in black or Hispanic neighborhoods. The shootings might not all be white on black, but they are all blue on black.

In some of these cases, police officers were indicted for charges ranging up to voluntary manslaughter. In every case, the officers were acquitted. The cases did bring various degrees of bad publicity and scrutiny of the police department. So it's understandable that Sgt. Terpos wanted to quickly identify the man with 23 bullet wounds lying in the street.

The judge did grant the prosecution's request for extra time to investigate the case, citing another piece of what would normally be termed "hearsay" as extremely strong circumstantial evidence, in this case the testimony of a paramedic who treated the bullet-riddled Alvarez.

The paramedic told the court Alvarez has said he'd gotten into a fight and a shootout.

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