A little after 9pm this Labor Day, Denise Gay, a 56-year-old retired home health aide, was fatally shot in the head by a stray bullet on her own stoop, on Park Place just off Franklin Avenue. The bullet was fired during a shootout between the NYPD and the rumored gang member Leroy Webster; the crossfire began when, following an earlier altercation, Webster fatally shot Esui Johnson in the neck, then fired on responding officers from his stoop, two doors down from Gay's.
Ballistic reports released by the NYPD last Wednesday indicate that the bullet recovered from Gay didn't come from Webster's gun, but had markings consistent with seven manufacturers' 9mm handguns, including Glock—the Glock 19 being one of the NYPD's regulation service weapons. Asked by reporters if Gay may have been killed by an NYPD officer, spokesman Paul Browne responded, rhetorically, "Was it one of the officers' Glocks? Possibly." He added, "Was it from the gun witnesses said Mr. Johnson had, but has not been recovered? Possibly." (Two witnesses apparently told the NYPD they saw Johnson with a gun, though no such weapon was found.)
It's "possible," that Johnson had a gun; possible it was a Glock or similar; possible he fired it; possible he hit an innocent bystander; possible one of his companions removed the gun from the scene.
"Eight officers returned fire" on Webster, the Times has reported, "firing 73 bullets and striking Mr. Webster twice." Asked by the Post if she thought a police bullet killed her mother, Tashmaya Gay replied, "I know it was. Look at the door," which the Post calls "bullet-riddled." Those 71 other bullets had to have landed somewhere, after all.
Obviously, none of this would have happened had Leroy Webster not shot a man dead in the street and then opened fire on the police. The integrity of the officers involved, who risked their lives to apprehend a killer, is not in question here. But their firepower probably should be. Five police officers shot off 50 rounds before determining that Sean Bell and his two friends were unarmed. (The three were hit 26 times. A stray bullet narrowly missed a civilian and two Port Authority officers a half block away.) Four police officers shot off 41 rounds before determining that Amadou Diallo was unarmed. (He was hit 19 times.) An attorney for the officers who shot Diallo explained to a jury that this wasn't as horrific as it seemed, it's just that "[NYPD rules] require that the officers carry nine millimeter semiautomatic pistols with sixteen shots in the magazine and the first trigger pull being a conventional trigger pull and all subsequent trigger pulls being a hair-trigger pull... [the guns] were all capable of being emptied in less than four seconds." The NYPD's record on shooting restraint has been mostly excellent in recent years, reflecting their range training, but in the heat of a shootout, who's to be blamed for their stray surge of adrenaline?
In the early 1990s, the state government, presumably terrified of being labeled "soft on crime," pressured Mayor Dinkins and his police commissioners into transitioning the NYPD from the Smith & Wesson revolver to the 9mm semiautomatic; then-commissioner Ray Kelly (who returned to the job under Bloomberg), fearing damage from overfiring, and confident that the street hoodlum packing a semiautomatic was more boogeyman than reality, resisted at first, and submitted only with safeguards—only 10 bullets, not 15, in a clip—quickly removed by his successor Bill Bratton and new mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The NYPD's Firearms Discharge Report for 2009 (the most recent available) reveals that, of the 49 people fired upon by police officers that year, 32 were themselves in possession of firearms. Nine of those subjects discharged them at police. The most common "known weapons possessed/used by subjects" were a 9mm semiautomatic (seven incidents) and a knife (also seven). Eight policemen were injured in these incidents, six of whom were wearing bulletproof vests. Twenty subjects were injured that year by NYPD gunfire, and twelve killed. Six of those twelve had guns. Four of those guns were fired.
Would NYPD officers really be putting their lives on the line by stepping out onto the beat with five fewer bullets in a clip? Are wild firefights like the one in Crown Heights really just the ugly but necessary byproduct of safer streets? The NYPD should base policy around actual threats—like the threat to innocent life—not perceived ones; Ray Kelly used to know this, and he would do well to remember it now. And anyway, even if cops really were in danger of being outgunned, the answer wouldn't be heavier firepower—it'd be better gun control.