Family and friends of Sean Bell gathered in Jamaica, Queens on Sunday to remember the 23-year-old man who was wrongfully killed by New York City police on his what was supposed to have been his wedding day six years ago.
Bell had been out celebrating at his bachelor party with friends when they were stopped by undercover police after leaving a strip club. The police officers opened fire on the car, unleashing 50 bullets, killing Bell and seriously injuring two others. Bell was unarmed.
The shooting shocked all of New York City and invoked memories of the death of Amadou Diallo, an African peddler killed after police fired 41 shots at him in 1999. Both men were black and both were unarmed, although in both cases the officers appeared to have believed the suspect had a gun.
“Every day around the 25th it’s the same,” Bell’s father, William Bell, told NY1. “It seems like it just happened. It don’t go away that easy, you know, and that’s the sad thing about it. Every year around the same time it just like, it really gets to me.”
The NYPD officers involved in the shooting alleged that they stopped the car because they believed Bell and his friends were going to take part in a drive-by shooting after an altercation that took place earlier that same evening.
On April 25, 2008, all three of the police officers indicted were acquitted on all counts. The defendants opted to have Justice Arthur J. Cooperman make a ruling rather than a jury. The ruling was handed down in a state supreme court in Queens.
New York City agreed in July 2010 to pay more than $7 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by the family and two friends of Bell. The lawsuit, filed in 2007, accused the police of wrongful death, negligence, assault and civil rights violations.
The city agreed to pay Bell’s family $3.25 million. Joseph Guzman, 34, who uses a cane and a leg brace and has four bullets lodged in his body and Trent Benefield, 26, were the two passengers in Bell’s car who attended his bachelor party and were wounded in the shooting. The two men will receive $3 million and $900,000, respectively, in the settlement, for a total of $7.15 million.
Bell’s former fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, said, “No amount of money will bring Sean back, but the most important thing is that our fight, my fight, doesn’t end here.
“No amount of money can provide closure but at least it will secure an economic future for my daughters.”
New York City Corporation Counsel stated, “The city regrets the loss of life in this tragic case and we share our deepest condolences with the Bell family.”
The head of the New York City Detectives Endowment Association, however, said at the time that he thought the settlement was a joke.
“The detectives were exonerated . . . and now the taxpayer is on the hook for $7 million and the attorneys are in line to get $2 million without suffering a scratch.”
Guzman said the settlement did not change the underlying reality that black and Hispanic men’s lives are not worth much in New York and that the incident is bound to be repeated.