New York’s mayor today admitted it appeared “excessive force” was used when a young groom was gunned down by police in a hail of bullets on his wedding day.
Black community leaders called on Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly to show “moral outrage” as they met the officials in the aftermath of Sean Bell’s death at the weekend after his stag night.
Mr Bloomberg said he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident, which left two of the 23-year-old’s friends injured, adding that it was “unacceptable or inexplicable” to him how officers could have unleashed 50 shots.
He said he had urged prosecutors in Queens to carry out their investigation as quickly as possible and expected a grand jury to begin considering if charges should be brought.
Civil rights activist the Rev Al Sharpton described his meeting with the mayor and police commissioner as “very blunt“.
He said the message to Mr Bloomberg was: “This city must show moral outrage that 50 shots were fired on three unarmed men.”
The mayor pledged a fair and thorough investigation and said the city would do all it could to prevent another such tragedy.
But he continued to defend Mr Kelly in the face of calls for his resignation.
Yesterday hundreds of people held a vigil for Mr Bell, who died early on Saturday morning just hours before he was due to have married the mother of his two children.
“We don’t know yet exactly what happened,” Mr Bloomberg told a press conference.
“We don’t have all the answers. There’s a lot that needs to be explained.
“When a shooting like this occurs there are legitimate questions about it and it’s essential to the city to do a fair and thorough investigation, to accept its consequences and to make sure that everything is done to prevent future incidents like this from occurring.”
He added: “I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired, but that’s up to the investigation to find out what really happened.”
The five officers involved in the incident outside a strip club in the early hours of Saturday were placed on paid administrative leave and stripped of their guns.
One of the wounded men, 31-year-old Joseph Guzman, is in a critical condition after being shot at least 11 times, while Trent Benefield, 23, who was hit three times, is stable. Mr Bell was hit twice.
Differing accounts emerged of exactly what happened.
Police began shooting after suspecting that one of the men had a gun, firing 50 rounds into the car they were in. No weapons were recovered however.
Mr Kelly has said police shot after the car drove forward and struck an undercover officer and an unmarked police minivan.
But Trini Wright, a dancer at the Kalua Cabaret club, told the New York Daily News the officers had not identified themselves.
She said she was going to a diner with the men and was putting her bag in the boot of their car when the police vehicle appeared.
“The minivan came around the corner and smashed into their car. And they (the police) jumped out shooting,” Ms Wright, 28, told the newspaper.
“No ’stop’. No ’freeze’. No nothing.”
Mr Kelly had said on Saturday that it was too early to say whether the shooting was justified and that it was unclear whether the plain clothes officers identified themselves before firing.
Meanwhile the New York Post said bullets from an undercover officer, who fired first, went straight through the car, prompting police on the other side to return fire at the vehicle thinking they were under attack.
Mr Bell’s distraught fiancee, Nicole Paultre, visited the site of his shootings before dawn today to quietly light candles placed around a photograph of the smiling couple with one of their daughters.
It was the first time any of the officers, all of whom were carrying 9 mm handguns, had been involved in a shooting.
NYPD policy forbids shooting at moving vehicles “unless deadly force is being used against the police officers or another person present, by means other than a moving vehicle“.