Bell settlement stirs debate

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Community leaders in southeast Queens and police representatives squared off in a war of words last week over the settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Sean Bell’s family and friends.

Bell’s fiancee, Nicole Paultre-Bell, who was supposed to marry the bridegroom the day he was killed in a 50-bullet barrage by police, said the roughly $7 million the city handed out to Bell’s estate and fellow shooting victims Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield was fair but called for more reforms to prevent a similar shooting.

“No amount of money can provide closure for losing Sean,” Paultre-Bell, the administrator of Bell’s estate, told reporters outside Brooklyn Federal Court July 28.

The city Detectives Endowment Association, which represented the officers involved with the Nov. 26, 2006, incident, had a different view on the multimillion dollar settlement.

“I thought the settlement was excessive. It did not take into account Sean Bell’s behavior and culpability in the entire incident,” DEA President Michael Palladino said.

Bell’s estate was awarded $3.25 million; Guzman, who was hospitalized for weeks, was awarded $3 million; and Benefield´╗┐ was awarded $900,000 in the settlement that was reached July 27.

Bell, 23, was with his friends at the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica celebrating his bachelor party at the same time undercover police officers were investigating suspected drug and prostitution operations at the strip club. One of the officers saw Bell and his entourage get into an argument outside the club and claimed to have heard someone say they were getting a gun.

When an unmarked police minivan pulled up in front of Bell’s car that was parked on the corner of Liverpool Street and 94th Avenue, the bridegroom rammed his car into the van, prompting five of the officers to open fire.

Bell was killed in the 50-shot barrage while Guzman and Benefield were injured, but no weapon was ever found. Three of the detectives involved in the shooting were indicted on manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges but acquitted in a bench trial in 2008.

The federal government refused to charge the officers with civil rights violations after the criminal trial ended. The NYPD said it would conduct an internal disciplinary review of the officers.

Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica branch of the NAACP, agreed with Paultre-Bell’s assessment of the settlement and pressed for action by the state and federal governments to improve the police.

“It’s symbolic justice — it’s not complete justice,” he said of the settlement. “I wish we had a better deal in the criminal justice system.”

Gadsden suggested that there should be tougher penalties on officers who commit acts of brutality on minorities.

“I think people who are victimized by brutality should seek justice not only in the criminal court but also the civil court. Not just for the monetary [award], but also to send a message that this should stop,” he said.

The NYPD has already changed some of its policies in the wake of the shooting, including mandatory alcohol testing every time police officers fire their weapons.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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