New York City police shot and killed four people in the first two days of 2003, sparking fears Friday from victims' families and minority leaders that the number of such shootings here may be increasing, after a lull in recent years.
The four victims include a 17-year-old Harlem boy, who allegedly held a gun to an undercover detective's head, and an unarmed Brooklyn man fleeing police in a stolen car, according to police accounts. Two other Brooklyn shootings involved men firing handguns into the air who refused orders to drop their weapons, officers said.
New York police fatally shot 12 people last year and 11 in 2001, a nearly 50% decline over the last 10 years, according to department statistics. But the rash of new shootings had officials struggling for answers Friday, even as they insisted that police had acted properly in three of the incidents. The department is still collecting information about the fourth, officials said.
"Police work is often dangerous and there are times when officers are forced to make life-and-death decisions in a matter of seconds, times when they are forced to take a life," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, in a news conference where he was flanked by charts and diagrams of each crime scene. "This is unfortunate, but it happens. And when it does, we conduct a thorough investigation."
Earlier in the day, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg backed up Kelly, noting on his weekly radio show: "It looks like they [officers] did what procedures called for them to do."
The debate over New York police shootings has long provoked racial tension, especially after the 1999 killing of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man who died in a hail of 41 police bullets. Four white officers, who were searching for a serial rapist, shot Diallo in the lobby of his apartment building when he reached for his keys and officers mistakenly thought it was a gun.
The officers were acquitted at trial, and since then the numbers of police shootings and killings have declined. But sensitivities remain. Three of New York's latest shooting victims were African American; the race of the fourth was not known.
"Why is that we're always hearing these shootings are justified?" said Johnnie Washington, a neighbor of the Harlem teenager who was killed Thursday. "How can you explain such a thing to a kid's family?"
Less than an hour after the shooting of Anthony Newsome, 17, residents of the upper Harlem community took to the streets and shouted that police had killed the teenager because he was black. They said his death was the latest in a pattern of white officers shooting black males.
Newsome was shot three times in the stairwell of his apartment building when he held a black BB gun that resembled a 9-millimeter handgun to the head of an undercover detective dressed as a fast-food delivery man, officers said. Police were investigating three previous complaints that someone in Newsome's Hamilton Heights apartment building had been calling for deliveries from a restaurant, then robbing delivery people.
After a fourth call came in from the building Thursday, two undercover detectives wearing T-shirts and hats from Wimpy's began climbing the stairway. They met Newsome on the third floor, and he immediately pointed his gun at the lead officer's left eye, Kelly said. "He began screaming, 'Give me the money!' " the commissioner said, adding that the first detective shouted "Don't shoot!" and then slipped and fell on the stairs. At that point, the second officer fired three shots at Newsome, killing him.
Newsome's family and other witnesses tell a different story. They said the boy begged officers not to shoot him as they met on the stairs. "He was apologizing. He kept saying to them, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' " said Janine McCormick, Newsome's aunt. "And still, he was shot three times."
In a second shooting, Kelly said police confronted Jamal Nixon, 19, outside a Brooklyn apartment at 12:13 a.m. Wednesday, when they saw him firing a handgun into the air. Officers told Nixon to drop his weapon, but after he pointed his gun back at them, two officers fired five shots and killed him instantly, Kelly said.
Charles Barron and James Davis, City Council members representing Brooklyn, held separate news events Friday to criticize the Nixon shooting and question police version of events. Both asked why Nixon had been shot in the back.
"We want to strongly criticize the Police Department, the mayor and all those who have rushed to justify before all the facts are known," said Barron, calling for an independent investigation by Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Charles Hynes.
Kelly said Nixon's wounds were consistent with him "twisting and turning" during the confrontation, and said two witnesses at a nearby apartment building corroborated the police account.
Three hours after Nixon was shot, police shot and killed Anthony Reid, 21, as he ran past them on a Brooklyn street, firing a handgun at them. Three officers told Reid to drop his gun and fired 18 shots after he refused, Kelly said. "He [Reid] was firing behind his back at police, as police returned fire," the commissioner said. Although details are still unknown, Kelly said Reid may have been involved in a dispute with several people at a nightclub when police arrived.
The fourth shooting took place Thursday afternoon in Brooklyn, when police killed an unarmed John Lagattuta, 35, who was fleeing in a suspected stolen minivan. Officers chased Lagattuta for several blocks before he halted the car and seven officers surrounded him. When an officer attempted to smash the windshield during a "confrontation," his gun may have accidentally misfired, Kelly said, adding that officers are still collecting information about the incident.
All of the officers involved have been taken off street patrols, pending the completion of investigations by the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys and the department's firearms review board, the commissioner added. He also said police had not yet interviewed any of the officers, pursuant to regulations that require the district attorneys to complete their own probes first.