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50 Shots

Around 4 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25, several New York City police officers in plain clothes fired an estimated 50 shots at a car, wounding two black men and killing a third, 23-year-old Sean Bell. Some police bullets penetrated nearby homes. Although an undercover officer had called for back-up, indicating that the three suspects had a gun, no weapon was found in the aftermath.

Inescapably, comparisons were made between Mr. Bell (who was to have been married later on Saturday) and Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant killed in a volley of 41 bullets by four NYPD plainclothes officers in February 1999. Mr. Diallo had committed no crime and was attempting to enter his own hallway when one of the undercover officers yelled, "Gun!" The four officers were acquitted in a trial held outside the city, based upon their defense that they reasonably believed their lives were in danger.

In both cases, the NYPD accurately cited statistics indicating that it had a comparatively low shooting rate, and that shootings by police were not rising. And in both instances, New York's black leaders and black communities reacted with understandable outrage that unarmed black men were killed with such a volume of gunfire. Both sides seemed to be talking past one another, instead of to each other.

After the Diallo case, I wrote that I, my father, older brother and countless other relatives had collectively served the NYPD for more than a century and a half and that none of us would have fired at Mr. Diallo. I say the same about the lethal volley that took Mr. Bell's life, based on initial reports.

Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on "officer safety" and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.

Yes, police work is dangerous, and the police see a lot of violence. On the other hand, 51 officers were slain in the line of duty last year, out of some 700,000 to 800,000 American cops. That is far fewer than the police fatalities occurring when I patrolled New York's highest crime precincts, when the total number of cops in the country was half that of today. Each of these police deaths and numerous other police injuries is a tragedy and we owe support to those who protect us. On the other hand, this isn't Iraq. The need to give our officers what they require to protect themselves and us has to be balanced against the fact that the fundamental duty of the police is to protect human life and that law officers are only justified in taking a life as a last resort.

There appear to be important differences between the killings of Mr. Diallo and Mr. Bell. Mr. Diallo was no threat to anyone. First reports are that the car occupied by Mr. Bell deliberately struck an undercover officer after he had identified himself. In addition, it is clear that the current police commissioner and mayor have established much better relations with the black community than their predecessors. Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Raymond Kelly have been as critical of the current shooting as permitted under due process. Yet when all is said and done, those with official responsibility to ensure that the innocent are protected, not harmed, by the police must constantly evaluate all police training, tactics, arms and attitudes.

Mr. McNamara, a retired NYPD deputy inspector and former police chief of Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif., is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

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