“Trigger-Happy Cops Fire 56 Bullets in Neighborhood Shootout,” the headlines did not scream this morning.
The day after a disturbed gunman murdered three unarmed men, two of whom were auxiliary police officers, The New York Times did not dwell on the possibility of police overreaction even though officers felled the gunman in a tremendous fusillade of bullets.
“They shot him. And after he went down they kept shooting,” the Times quotes an eyewitness in the 29th paragraph of a 2000+ word story deep in the Metro Section of the paper. “I could see the sparks off the sidewalk. Then they kicked him a couple of times.”
The perp’s lifelong struggle with issues of race, gender, or class did not figure at all in the Times’ obligatory profile of the victim of the police shooting. Although he had worked as a journalist and showed promise as a screenwriter and had even produced a film several years ago, the Times profile did not explore the possibilities of a life cut short by the actions of hyper-aggressive white cops with testosterone coursing through their young inexperienced veins.
But just a few months ago, in November, the story was quite different.
Back then, when police officers confronted and killed Sean Bell who they believed was armed and posing them a mortal threat, the Times headline read “50 Bullets and a Death in Queens.”
Coverage included charges of excessive police force and racism (even though the target and most of the officers involved were black). Mayor Bloomberg felt compelled to express his grave concern. After meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Charlie Rangel, the Mayor announced, “It is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired.”
And in 1999, when Amadou Diallo appeared to pose a threat to police, he was shot dead in a 41-bullet barrage and similar outrage filled the pages of local newspapers for months.
What is the difference between then and now? Why are we unlikely to see people marching on City Hall with placards baring the number “56” in blood red ink? Because David Gavin, the civilian on the receiving end of the police bullets is manifestly guilty of cold blooded murder and the police acted appropriately in subduing him.
What we learn from the Greenwich Village shootout, and the Sean Bell shootout, and the Diallo shootout, is that when the New York City Police believe you pose a mortal threat to them, you are going to get shot . . . a lot. And they’re going to kick you to make sure you’re dead.
This has nothing to do with brutality or deeply help racial prejudices or untrained trigger-happy, machismo in uniform. This is human nature. It’s also the reality of life and death in a city.
Pull a gun on a cop and you get popped. That’s both explicable and acceptable to me.