Originally created 11/29/06

Twin tragedies



What are some police officers thinking these days? That's a question even law-and-order advocates are asking following two horrendous incidents this past week.

One was in northwest Atlanta, where plainclothes narcotics officers stormed the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. She shot at them, wounding three, and they returned fire, killing her.

Then last Saturday, New York City police sprayed 50 bullets into the car of an unarmed, pre-wedding bachelor party group, killing the 23-year-old groom, Sean Bell, and wounding two other men, one critically. The officers' shots struck the men's car 21 times after their vehicle rammed into an undercover officer and hit an unmarked police minivan. Fortunately, no one else was hurt, although the officers' gunfire also ripped into nearby homes and shattered windows at a train station.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says the incident is under investigation - that it's too early to tell whether the shooting was justified. But 50 rounds is a lot to unload in a crowded neighborhood, even if it is crime-infested.

The officers may have thought they were under attack, but they could just as well have thought they were in an accident. No gunshots seemed to have been fired at them.

Although the bachelor party was black, two of the five police officers also were black, and one was Hispanic, so race bias does not appear to be a factor.

In Atlanta, the narcotics officers said they went to the old woman's house after buying drugs there earlier in the day from a dealer known only as "Sam." Even though they had a no-knock search warrant, they said they announced themselves before entering and being shot at.

But in the neighborhood they were in, drug dealers and home invaders often announce themselves as police to gain easy entry into old people's homes. This is why Ms. Johnston was armed and didn't trust the police even if they did announce themselves before they barged into her home.

Law enforcement is more complicated than many people think. Considering the many important decisions officers make daily, coming down harshly on the officers involved in these two incidents is premature.

Police in New York and Atlanta claim they followed proper procedures and, of course, federal investigations of the incidents will determine whether that's true. But when you look at what happened - an unarmed man killed and an old woman shot dead defending herself from what she thought were home invaders - you have to figure that if they did follow procedures, then those procedures probably should be changed.

No-knock warrants are particularly odious. They should be issued only in the most extreme circumstances, and gaining entry into an old woman's home hardly seems to qualify.