The New York Police Department will have to release info on the race of people that officers have shot, following a state Supreme Court ruling that sided with civil-rights activists working to find out definitively if there is a racial element to police violence against civilians in the US's largest city.
Following the much-publicized shooting of Sean Bell by a team of undercover NYPD officers in November, 2006, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a freedom of information request seeking "all information about the racial backgrounds of individuals shot by police officers over the past 10 years."
When the NYPD released the shooting statistics but withheld the racial data, the NYCLU took the police department to court. In a ruling issued last week, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden ruled that the NYPD had not proven its case for withholding the information, and ordered the police force to release it.
"This is a victory for the principle of open government and accountability to the public," NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn said in a statement. “The court’s decision makes clear that the NYPD had no basis for withholding this data, which is necessary to conduct a complete study of the role race plays in police shootings."
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said that the documents the group has received thus far "paint a troubling, but incomplete, picture of the NYPD’s shooting practices. This new data will help us give New Yorkers the full story on police shootings, not the NYPD’s spin.”
The Sean Bell shooting has become a flashpoint for racial tensions in New York City. On November 25, 2006, a team of undercover NYPD officers unloaded some 50 rounds into a car carrying Bell and two of his friends, on suspicion that one of them had a gun. The trio had been leaving a Queens nightclub where Bell was celebrating his bachelor party. Bell died, and his two friends were injured.
The tensions boiled over in April, 2008, when three police officers were acquitted of wrongdoing in the incident. As protests raged in Harlem and other New York neighborhoods, the Rev. Al Sharpton called on residents to protest the verdict with acts of civil disobedience.
On Monday, New York City Council voted to rename the street where Bell died "Sean Bell Way," despite accusations by some that the move amounts to "police-bashing." Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he will sign the bill.