NEW YORK -- A congressional committee yesterday heard civil rights crusaders, academics and frustrated Sean Bell supporters demand a massive overhaul to police departments in New York and nationwide to end excessive force deaths.
"This is not a New York matter anymore - it is international," said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which held a public forum on police accountability at the Customs House in lower Manhattan.
The committee, which has influence over federal funding of police departments, will recommend changes in police training, funding and policies to reduce instances of racial profiling and excessive force.
Like other such cases of deadly force, the 50-shot killing of Bell, 23, has again called into question police conduct. Last month's acquittal of the three undercover officers charged in the Nov. 25, 2006 death led to citywide protests calling for civil rights prosecution of the officers and immediate policing reforms.
Leading the effort before the committee, the Rev. Al Sharpton criticized Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for not answering an invitation to the forum.
"They don't take you seriously," Sharpton told the committee yesterday. "They believe we'll have a forum, that you'll go back to Washington and nothing will happen."
Shortly before the forum, Bloomberg exploded after hearing the phrasing of a question about the Sean Bell inquiry from a reporter, cutting off the rest of the question before offering an answer. Later, a mayoral spokesman said neither Bloomberg nor Kelly attended the forum because of the ongoing federal and internal probe into the Bell case.
The policing reforms recommended by politicians, experts and community leaders included funding community-based boards with the power to hire and fire police; the creation of a permanent, statewide prosecutor to investigate police misconduct, and axing federal funding to law enforcement agencies ineffectively addressing police misconduct.
Deborah Ramirez, law professor at Northeastern University in Boston, also proposed the creation of a uniform national database to track racial profiling and the use of excessive force. Such a database doesn't exist, she said, making it hard to address systemic problems.
In their opening statements, committee members Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) supported the federal investigation into Bell's killing. Along with Conyers, both vowed that the committee will make a thorough review.
"We are not going to allow the verdict to be the end of the story," said Weiner, as Bell's mother and father, along with his fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, looked on.
Paultre Bell spoke briefly, as did Joseph Guzman, one of Bell's friends wounded in the gunfire.
Bell, 23, was killed and two friends were wounded by 50 bullets fired by three undercover officers outside a Jamaica strip club. State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman cleared the officers April 25.
Other invited guests included New York State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Far Rockaway) and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-Manhattan).
Conyers said his committee will review the testimony gathered in the public hearing and will work toward some solutions in Washington. "We have a very complex situation," he said. "We have to come up with a better way of policing."
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