December 3rd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Drunken Undercover Cops "Spray-and-Pray"

So I've been following this last week's news about the shooting of Sean Bell, up in New York City, a guy who was killed by cops at his bachelor party. I wanted to withhold judgment until I'd heard both sides, and to see if any more witnesses have come forward. And piecing it all together from the witness reports and the other news reports, I'm pretty sure I know what happened here. Not that any journalist can come forward and say this, because there are elements of speculation involved. But here's how I reconstruct it.

Five undercover cops were in a strip club, reportedly following up on phoned-in tips that this strip club was a front for drug dealing and prostitution. Being undercover, I'd bet you the price of a good lunch that at least most of them, and probably all of them, were at least legally drunk. According to witnesses who were inside the club, this table full of drunks got into a drunken argument with another table full of drunks, namely Sean Bell's bachelor party. When Sean and two of his friends left the bar for the night, the cops followed them. Their story about why they were following him is contradicted by all other witness accounts, but it's not hard to guess what their real reason for leaving at the same time he did was: they were going to bust him for drunk driving to get back at him for whatever the drunken argument inside the bar was.

As Bell's car was pulling away from the curb, five cops in two cars rushed him from two different directions. Once the cops had Bell's car penned in and unable to move, they jumped out of their cars, all guns drawn and (obviously) safeties off. The cops claim that they yelled "Police!" and if the survivors from inside the car were the only ones that contradicted them, it would still be possible that they yelled it and Bell and his party didn't hear them through the closed car windows. However, at least two other witnesses have come forward and insisted that no, nobody yelled anything, the cops are lying through their teeth. Bell, seeing the drunks from inside the bar now waving guns at him, rammed the officer in front of his car, and then rammed both cars trying to clear a path to drive out of the line of fire.

NYPD use of force doctrine specifically prohibits officers from firing into a moving vehicle when the only weapon being used is the vehicle itself. So to cover their backsides, the cops are now all swearing up and down that someone inside the car had claimed, on his way to the car, that he was heading to the car to get a gun, and that as the car rammed the first officer they saw that person reach towards his waistband. The cop in front of the car fired. Hearing shots fired, the rest of the cops opened fire as well (even though, having encircled the car, they were in "ethnic firing squad" formation), targeting everything inside the car. Bullets sprayed in all directions, wrecking quite a bit of the neighborhood; miraculously, no cops nor anybody in nearby buildings nor other bystanders were hit. One officer fired 31 shots all by his lonesome: one in the chamber, all 15 in the clip, and all 15 from his spare clip, all in the space of at most 10 seconds. A total of 50 shots were fired, killing Bell and hospitalizing two other passengers. No guns were found in the car. To cover themselves, the cops swear up and down that a fourth person, the one with the gun, completely unharmed despite the hail of gunfire, must have somehow miraculously escaped from the fully-encircled shot-up car with the gun and run off without any of the cops seeing him, let alone stopping him. Multiple witnesses swear that nobody said "gun" on the way to the car and that there were never more than 3 people in the car, that the cops are again lying through their teeth. The NYPD is conducting a door-to-door manhunt for this mythical fourth gunman, and even threatened to beat the crap out of Sean Bell's minister's son if he wouldn't tell the cops the name of that fourth gunman that nobody but them saw.

I think we can all see what happened.

Let me talk about ol' drunken spray-n-pray here for a second. The police union in NY is claiming that it would be unfair to penalize that officer for "contagious shooting." They're claiming that when a brother officer opens fire, it is so natural and instinctive for all cops to provide supporting and cover fire that no matter what the rules and the law are, it's just humanly impossible for them not to go into suppressive fire mode. Now, ironically, no more than at most 1 out of 4 officers still does this. But that's still 1 in 4. So let's talk technological solutions for a minute, particularly one that's an old hobby horse of mine, one that's near and dear to my heart: the evils of the 16-shot hair-trigger semi-automatic as a police weapon. The NYPD spec for an officer's weapon is specifically designed for spray-n-pray, in that it requires that once normal trigger force is used to pull the trigger for the first round, once the weapon starts firing all subsequent shots must be on a hair trigger. They are also required to be able to push rounds into the chamber and fire them fast enough to empty the whole 16 round initial load in 4 seconds, that is to say to fire at 4 rounds per second.

Is that ever a good idea? Ever? The military used to issue its troops weapons like that. And then, after reviewing the records of how weapons were actually used, they concluded that unless you design the weapon to make people stop and re-acquire the target, then otherwise every round after the 3rd is wasted. That's why all military assault rifles in the world now require extra steps to switch them from 3-round burst fire to full automatic, and why soldiers are taught to basically never use that full-auto switch. Every time I bring up the evils of the 16-round clip, somebody tells me about some hypothetical situation where the cop might need 16 rounds, might need to keep swapping fire with a target for that long or might need to engage multiple targets. Even if that were the case for anybody other than the SWAT team, go back and look at Officer Spray-n-Pray and ask yourself: having emptied all 31 rounds he had at a single target in 10 seconds, what would he have done if there had been a second target, if that mythical fourth unharmed guy with a gun had gotten out of the car? And is there any such thing as a target that can be killed by 31 rounds at that range that can't be killed by five? Or ten?

The five-shot 38 caliber revolver was the standard police issue weapon for every police force in the world for almost a hundred years. Why? Because you would be hard pressed to design a better weapon for actual normal police work. The cylinder rotates fast enough to get off five shots at the same target, but slow enough that your reflexes can stop firing if you need to. It can be reloaded by a trained operator in under ten seconds, and in the same second or two that a clip requires if you issue them speed loaders, but it requires you to look at the weapon to do it, breaking your line of sight and yes, again, making you re-acquire the target. And frankly, if you've fired five shots at the same target and not knocked them down yet, you need to be made to take that few seconds to rethink what you're doing anyway. And remember, re-evaluating the situation and re-acquiring the target is exactly what the use-of-force doctrine of every police department says that you're supposed to do, not after every five shots (let alone 16), but after every one shot.

So if the police unions say that it is unavoidable for at least one in four officers to use his weapon as if it were a fully automatic machine gun every time he hears a gun go off, why are we issuing them guns that do a good imitation of a fully automatic machine gun? Weapons that have no actual tactical advantages over the good old fashioned .38 revolver, which is substantially safer for the public and for their brother officers for them to carry? Because if there's any reason other than penis envy, the fear of showing up at a fight with a gun that is smaller than the bad guy's and therefore feeling less manly, I have yet to hear one that holds up under close inspection.