No Time-Share, Just Facts For Writers at SAF/NSSF Class
by Dave Workman
Community outrage erupted in Atlanta, GA, over the killing of a 92-year-old woman in what was described as a drug raid by undercover narcotics officers, and the shooting sparked considerable debate in the firearms community about police operations that end up with the death of someone like the victim in this case.
Dead is Kathryn Johnston, who opened fire when police came through her door, and she wounded three officers before she was killed by return fire. Neighbors of Johnston flooded the telephone lines of state Rep. Mable Thomas (D-Atlanta), insisting the dead woman had no connection to drug activity.
And just days later, in New York City, undercover police officers fired at least 50 rounds into a car, killing an unarmed man and wounding his two companions outside of a strip club, where they were reportedly celebrating the dead man’s impending wedding. The victim in that shooting, Sean Bell, was to have been married hours later to his high school sweetheart, and the mother of his two children.
These shootings ignited a firestorm that reaches well beyond the two communities in which the killings occurred.
According to reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, local television stations and the Associated Press (AP), Johnston legally owned the handgun, described as a rusty revolver, with which she opened fire. She lived alone.
Gun rights activists on several chat lists and Internet forums wondered whether police acted on faulty information in the Atlanta case. Days after the shooting, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington told The Journal-Constitution that the department will review its “no knock” warrants policy and how it uses confidential informants.
But it was more than “faulty information” that led to the fatal New York City shooting. Published reports in The New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News said the first shots were fired by an undercover officer who allegedly believed that at least one of the men in Bell’s car had a gun, and there were reports that Bell’s car had struck an officer and an undercover police car.
Further complicating the New York case was the fact that Bell and his companions all had criminal records. According to The Post, Bell had been arrested twice for drugs and once on a firearms beef, about which records are sealed. Joseph Guzman, 31, has nine arrests on his record, including one for armed robbery, the newspaper said. He also spent time in prison twice during the 1990s. The third man, Trent Benefield, reportedly has a sealed juvenile record that included arrests for gun possession and robbery.
Wounded in the Atlanta shooting, according to AP, were Officers Gary Smith, Cary Bond and Gregg Junnier. All are expected to recover.
The Journal-Constitution reported that police said some marijuana was found inside Johnston’s home, and that in the past, drugs had been seized there.
Atlanta police claimed that a man identified as “Sam” had sold drugs to an informant earlier on the day of the fatal shooting. As a result, police sought a “no knock” warrant, according to the newspaper, so they could get into the house before any suspects had an opportunity to destroy drugs that might be on the premises.
But neighbors of the dead woman argued bitterly that she was not a drug dealer and that she lived alone.
Up in New York, with firebrand Rev. Al Sharpton stepping into the controversy, police were bombarded with questions about why officers had to fire so many rounds.
The white detective who squeezed off 31 of 50 shots at three unarmed men outside the Queens strip joint had a clean record, never fired his gun in the line of duty and was known as a good street cop, The Daily News reported.
His unblemished history left fellow officers puzzled over what led the 12-year veteran to get down on one knee and empty two magazines on the darkened Queens street early on Nov. 25.
“He lost it. Four or five roundsmaybe. But to reload? It’s hard to understand. Even in the heat of the moment, it’s overkill,” a law enforcement source told The Daily News.
In all, seven plainclothes officers were involved in what should have been a textbook prostitution sting as part of the city’s effort to shutter the Kalua Cabaret.
But the NYPD had interviewed only two cops as this report was writtenthe ones who did not fire: an undercover detective who remained outside the club and a lieutenant who ducked behind the dashboard of his unmarked car when bullets flew.
Questioning the officers who fired falls to the Queens district attorney’s office, which sources said plans to present the case to a grand jury. Of the five officers, two are white, two are black and one is Hispanic.
Aside from the 12-year vet, the other officers involved in the shooting are:
- An undercover Hispanic officer with five years on the job who fired first and shot 11 rounds.
- A five-year veteran who fired three times.
- A 17-year veteran who fired four times.
- A nine-year veteran who fired once.
In the firearms community, reaction was immediate, but not entirely critical toward police.
“The thing that bothers me about both of these incidents,” said Syd Weedon of Louisville, KY, in an e-mail to Gun Week, “is the fact that the action was initiated by police officers in plain clothes, not uniforms.…I think there is absolutely a place for plain clothes in police work, such as investigations and surveillance, but for other types of police work, uniforms should be required. How do you know that the guy running out of the darkness at you with a gun is a police officer if he is dressed in civilian clothes? I also think that officers doing dynamic entries should be uniformed. Anyone can yell ‘police’ when they’re kicking down your door. If people can see that these are definitely uniformed officers, they will be less likely to panic and do the wrong thing.”
On the KeepAndBearArms.com forum, at least two activists promised to post the names and addresses of allegedly bad cops, while others suggested that police have “a license to kill” and that if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is serious about banning handguns in the city, he needs to start with the police. Others on the forum engaged in considerable vitriol toward police.
None of the newspapers were very quick to identify officers involved in the New York incident, possibly because at least two of them were working undercover.
On The High Road, there were strong disagreements over the nature, and the circumstances, of the New York shooting. Some participants in at least three different discussions took the police side while others held quite the opposite view. There did not seem to be much in-between.
It was noted by the newspapers in New York that Bloomberg called Bell’s heartbroken fiancé and also promised a full investigation.
In Georgia, that state’s Bureau of Investigation was asked by the Fulton County District Attorney’s office to investigate the Johnston shooting, which could continue for several weeks.
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