Crime: 'Contagious' Gunfire?

Five New York City police officers went to work last Friday having never fired their 16-shot semiautomatic pistols on patrol. But by early Saturday morning, they'd all pulled the trigger for the first time—shooting a total of 50 rounds at Sean Bell, an unarmed 23-year-old who allegedly hit an undercover officer and an unmarked police van with his car after leaving a Queens strip club. The barrage killed Bell and renewed a debate about whether police are more likely to use excessive force against unarmed—and predominantly black—men. (For many, Bell's death brought back memories of the infamous 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who died in a flurry of 41 bullets after reaching for a wallet that police thought was a gun. City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the Bell incident "deeply disturbing," and the Rev. Al Sharpton said that it "amount[ed] to a firing squad." But defenders of law enforcement claim a combination of inexperience, fear, confusion and lack of training can cause what's known in police parlance as "contagious shooting"—gunfire that spreads, in the heat of the moment, from officer to officer. NEWSWEEK's Andrew Romano talked to former police officer Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, about whether contagious shooting could explain last week's tragedy. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Viruses are contagious. How can shooting be contagious, too?

Eugene O'Donnell: Cops in New York City don't shoot unless their lives or the lives of others are in mortal danger. New York City cops in a year, 36,000 of them, working 24/7, millions of interactions with people, get into 100 shootings. And 80 percent of the time they miss the target. In New York, it's more about when you don't shoot. You don't shoot warning shots. You don't shoot to scare people. You don't shoot to punish people. You don't shoot to disarm people. You don't shoot dogs. You don't shoot moving vehicles or from moving vehicles. But when police officers, irrespective of whatever training they get, believe they're going to die, they're going to fire as many shots as they need to extinguish what they perceive to be the threat … In some sense, the easiest task is teaching the cops when to shoot or not shoot. It's much more difficult to teach them when to stop shooting.

So did each of these officers think their lives were in danger?

We don't know what was in their minds. But you can imagine that once bullets start to fly, the thought process of one officer is quickly adopted by the others: "Suddenly, my partner is firing. He must have felt endangered. There's no time to sort this out. There's low light. I can't see. The suspect is behaving erratically, smashing into cars. Now I'm firing, too." When multiple officers are involved, it presents a unique set of challenges. They may not work together. They may not know each other well. With contagious shootings, officers who have never been in shootings—and never expect to get into shootings—get involved in perceived deadly force situations. And the fact of the matter is, when shots are being fired around them, cops sometimes start firing, too—even if they don't have the same information as the officer who pulled his trigger first.

You're saying it's reflexive. There's not a lot of thought involved.

That's right. In real life, 99 percent of New York City police officers are never going to shoot at anybody. So, in some sense, they're just as shocked and surprised as other people when they find themselves in a situation where shots are being fired.

How common is contagious shooting?

It's incredibly rare.

But we've heard about all these incidents: the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, when NYPD officers fired 41 shots at an unarmed West African immigrant; 125 shots in a 1995 Bronx bodega robbery; 43 shots last year in Queens. Similar incidents in Florida, Los Angeles and Denver....

I don't know about those other cities, but here in New York, it's a short list. You can count all of the controversial shootings in the New York City Police Department in the last 10 years on one hand. The cops are instructed almost to the point where they'd allow someone to shoot at them first before they'd respond.

So what sort of blame should we place on police officers in these situations?

No one should minimize the tragedy and horror of this. But we don't have the facts. We don't know what they perceived as a threat when they fired. We don't know the legitimacy or impropriety of anything they did. Bottom line, though, is that the law gives them a lot of leeway. Why? Because the public wants the police to have a lot of leeway. They're out there doing the public's business.

Does race play a part? With a mostly black list of victims, pundits and activists are saying contagious shooting is actually driven by racism—that, in the words of one blogger, the "contagion is rarely spread by white targets."

Will we ever know if race is an issue here? No. Is race an issue in just about everything in our society? Yes, it probably is. The wealthy don't need the police as much as poor people and powerless people and, unfortunately in our country, that's a lot of minority people. You can't ignore that.

In 1993 the NYPD switched from six-shot, .38-caliber revolvers, which were tough to reload, to semiautomatic pistols, which hold 16 rounds. Do they really need that much firepower?

The number of shots cops fire [annually, on average per the number of officers involved in shooting incidents] is steady—3 or 4. The number of people they kill is very small. And usually they've been fired upon first or there's a weapon involved. The theory behind that change was that you should never use deadly force—but if you have to, we want you to win.

Do you think a stricter "three-shot rule"—which the NYPD says its officers are already advised to follow—would be a good way to prevent contagious shooting from happening in the future?

No. First of all, cops don't normally hit anybody when they shoot. It takes an average of five bullets to hit somebody once. Secondly, there are recorded incidences of suspects being hit multiple times and still killing police officers. The circumstances and the perception of threat dictate how many shots you should take.

How are NYPD officers trained to handle these situations—and is that training adequate?

They get training, but it's hard in a big department to give them as much training as they probably should get. To state the obvious, one of the limitations of police training is that when things really happen, they happen in a screwed-up way. They don't happen on cue. We teach people to shoot on a range. But what's the connection between that and real-life combat? None. Zero.

So there's nothing that can be done?

No, there is. The whole country—even the world—follows the NYPD, which is the agency that gave us the restrictions on firearms that most cities follow. In the 1970s, it was the NYPD that rewrote the rule book on the use of force, which led to an unbelievably precipitous decline in shootings in New York and other places. So I wouldn't be surprised if the NYPD makes an effort to raise awareness in the ranks about the risk of contagious shooting. They'll review the training. The NYPD is a learning organization. They've learned their lessons—sometimes the hard way. And they have a tendency to fix things that are broken.

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