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Jillian Steinhauer: A Case of “Contagious Shooting”

October 3, 2011

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How are tightening gun laws and reining in illegal firearms going to solve excessive gun use when uniformed men and women are still legally carrying lethal weapons out in the streets?

By **Jillian Steinhauer**

crime575.jpgPhotograph by Yumi Kimura.

The New York Police Department fires its weapons drastically less than it used to—at least, by its own account. According to official reports, officers fired 2,510 shots in 994 incidents around the city in 1972; in 2009, the statistics were 296 bullets in 105 altercations. The conclusion: the police have become far less violent.

Viewed from another angle, however, the NYPD’s weapon use has gone up. In 1993 the department switched from six-shot revolvers to semiautomatic pistols. The new guns carried 10 rounds per clip and allowed for swifter firing and reloading. The following year, Police Commissioner William Bratton increased the ammunition to 16 rounds.

A third story combines the previous two in a puzzling and disquieting way. It tells of police officers who tend to shoot less, but shoot excessively in certain instances. NYPD officers have a reputation for getting carried away with their guns. In addition to the notorious Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell episodes, police fired 46 times when breaking up a fight in Harlem last year. Twenty-seven shots hit a man named Angel Alvarez; the rest wounded three bystanders and two officers. In 2005, police shot and killed an armed man in Queens in a hail of 43 bullets. The following year, they fired 26 rounds at a pit bull that had bitten an officer’s leg.

As of a few weeks ago, we can add to that list 73, the number of bullets fired in an incident, and Denise Gay, the woman who was killed on her own stoop when one of them lodged in her head. This particular shoot-out took place around 9 p.m. on September 5 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It began with a dispute between two groups of men led, respectively, by ex-convicts Leroy Webster and Eusi Johnson. The fight culminated in Webster chasing Johnson and two of his friends into the street, firing at them, and fatally wounding Johnson in the neck. Johnson managed to run away as cops appeared; Webster redirected and shot at the police. They returned fire—eight of them, shooting a total of 73 rounds. The whole thing lasted less than a minute and left two officers wounded but stable, Webster with wounds in the chest and hip, and two people—Johnson and Gay—dead.

[S]hould it require eight officers and 73 bullets—only two of which hit their intended target—to take down a lone and stationary man?

Police and witnesses initially believed that both Webster and Johnson had guns. The original story went that the incident had begun as a shoot-out between the ex-cons, and one of their bullets had killed Gay. Mayor Bloomberg dutifully held a press conference where he denounced Gay’s death as “a senseless murder” and invoked the failure of the federal government to enact gun laws.

By the next day, however, reports had seriously changed. Searches failed to turn up Johnson’s alleged gun. Harrowing security-camera footage showed no evidence of him firing—only three men running away from the armed Webster and then a showdown between Webster, standing in a doorway, and off-camera police. Most damningly, ballistics tests ruled out Webster as Gay’s assailant and instead implicated the police: the bullet that killed her was probably fired from a gun with polygonal rifling, said the chief spokesman for the NYPD. Glock is one of the largest manufacturers of such guns, and many New York police officers use Glocks.

The department terms this type of wild fire “contagious shooting,” which it defines as “a chain reaction of shooting by other personnel.” In other words, one officer starts firing and others join in instinctively. A retired police captain described it as “sort of like a Pavlovian response” and “automatic”—phrases that suggest the officers act as machines that respond instead of thinking.

Of course, sometimes a cop just doesn’t have time to think. And the officers in Crown Heights had every right to fire; unlike with Diallo or Bell, they were facing an active shooter. But the definition of “contagious shooting” is alarming because it explains excessive force while eliminating personal responsibility. Most of us would prefer that the people we pay to carry guns assess a situation as fully as possible before firing, especially when they’re capable of shooting off 16 rounds in a matter of seconds.

The NYPD says it will never be able to determine definitively if one of its own killed Denise Gay; all it can offer is a self-effacing “possibly.” But the question stands: should it require eight officers and 73 bullets—only two of which hit their intended target—to take down a lone and stationary man? If the answer is yes, then police need better training. If the answer is that the excessive shooting was involuntary, then we need stricter gun limits—perhaps a return to 10-round clips, for starters. Tightening gun laws and reining in illegal firearms should always remain a priority, but even then, we’ll still have uniformed men and women legally carrying lethal weapons out in the streets.

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Jillian Steinhauer.jpg
Jillian Steinhauer is an editorial assistant at Guernica.




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