NEW YORK (AP) – As city officials sought to calm outrage over the police slaying of an unarmed man on his wedding day, investigators on Tuesday questioned a civilian witness about how officers unleashed a barrage of 50 bullets at the victim’s car.

The unidentified bystander was on a darkened block in Queens when five police officers opened fire, killing 23-year-old Sean Bell and injuring two friends as they sat inside the car, officials said.

“We have identified another witness and he’s being debriefed now,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said following a meeting with community leaders in Queens.

There are two other civilian witnesses: One woman on the street who says she saw the car crash and officers firing their weapons, and a second woman who from her window spotted a man running away from area around the time of the shooting. Investigators are trying to determine if that man had been with the three who were shot.

Three days after the fatal encounter, it remained unclear why the four detectives and one police officer resorted to deadly force while conducting an undercover vice operation at a strip club.

Police investigators have not interviewed the officers, in deference to a district attorney probe that could result in criminal charges, nor have the officers spoken publicly. A detectives’ union lawyer, Philip Karasyk, has called the incident “a tragedy, but not a crime.”

Union officials familiar with the officers’ account say at least one undercover detective was convinced there was a gun in the car. They also allege that Bell defied orders to stop, and used the vehicle as a weapon, bumping the undercover and ramming an unmarked police van.

The detectives have signaled they would cooperate with a grand jury investigation.

“They are genuinely concerned and very sympathetic toward the three men who were shot,” said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association. “However, they are anxious to speak to the district attorney in Queens and tell their side of the story.”

Though Mayor Michael Bloomberg has suggested the amount of firepower used was “unacceptable or inexplicable,” it might not rise to the level of a crime, said Jim Cohen, a professor of criminal law at Fordham Law School.

“The number of shots fired doesn’t mean anything, even though it seems a little shocking,” Cohen said. “We simply don’t have enough information to draw any conclusions.”

On Tuesday, Bloomberg went to the Bell family’s Queens church, where he met for about an hour with the parents and fiancee of the victim, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton. The mayor then met at a restaurant with about 50 community leaders.

The mayor held a similar meeting Monday at City Hall in which he declared that officers appeared to use “excessive force” when Bell was killed hours before his wedding. He stood by his comments Tuesday.

“I am a civilian. I am not a professional law enforcement officer,” he said. “I used the word excessive and that’s fine. That was my personal opinion. It may turn out to be that it was not excessive.”

Councilman James Sanders Jr. of Queens said after the meeting that he had warned Bloomberg about possible unrest.

“I alerted the mayor that the temperature on the streets has increased to a large degree,” he said. “While we are sitting in these meetings, a lot of people are out on the streets.”

Kelly said some tension was inevitable.

“The nature of what police departments do – we arrest people, we give them summonses, we’re the bearers of bad news, we use force and sometimes we use deadly force,” he said. “There is always going to be some tension between the police department and the community.”

The gunfire on Saturday morning stemmed from an undercover operation inside the Kalua Cabaret, where seven officers in plain clothes were investigating alleged prostitution and drug use.

Kelly has said the groom was involved in an argument outside the club after 4 a.m., and one of his friends made a reference to a gun. An undercover officer walked closely behind Bell and his friends as they headed for their car. As he walked toward the front of the vehicle, they drove forward – striking him and an undercover police minivan, Kelly said.

The officer who had followed the group on foot was apparently the first to open fire, Kelly said. One 12-year veteran fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines, Kelly said.

Bloomberg also said police appeared to have violated the policy stating that officers cannot shoot at a vehicle being used as a weapon if no other deadly force is involved.

Bloomberg was steadfast, however, in his support for Kelly, who has been denounced by some activists since the shooting.

The five officers were placed on paid administrative leave and had their guns removed while the investigation goes on.

The survivors were Joseph Guzman, 31, who was shot at least 11 times, and Trent Benefield, 23, who was hit three times. Guzman was in critical condition and Benefield in stable condition on Monday.


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