Once a year every November, a ringing bell breaks the quiet of a cold early morning in South Jamaica. It rings 50 times, once for each bullet that police officers fired on the fateful morning that killed Sean Bell.
Valerie Bell remembers calling her son every day to check up on him. To her concerns he would reply, “Ma, I got this,” a saying that encompassed his confident outlook on life that he seemed to have since a young age. At 6, he had hit his first home run, and by high school, he was the popular kid his friends would go to for advice about girls. In his senior year at John Adams, he had 97 strikeouts as a pitcher, and that same year he met his future fiancÈe, Nicole Paultre. The two eventually had a child together, which led to Bell dropping out of college to support his growing family.
The 23-year-old’s death came at a time when he was turning around his life. After a few drug busts and odd jobs, Bell was set to start an electrical apprenticeship. He was even in talks with the Dodgers about a tryout. The last day of his life was spent shopping with his fiancÈe for a wedding ring. Three years after the proposal, Nov. 25, 2006 had been set as the wedding date. For the bachelor party, Sean and his friends opted for Club Kalua, a strip joint undergoing police investigation.
When Bell’s party left the club Officer Gescard Isnora, who fired the first shot, said later he thought he heard someone from Bell’s group shout, “Yo, get my gun” after another man insulted them. His lieutenant then gave the order to approach Bell’s car. Two unmarked cars with five plainclothes officers blocked the vehicle. Isnora says he shouted “Police!” before unleashing bullets, while Bell’s friends says they never heard it nor saw a police shield. Fifty shots were fired while Joseph Guzman, Trent Benefield and Bell were still in the car, with one officer even stopping to reload. In the end, the groom was fatally wounded while his two friends suffered serious injuries.
Sean’s death sparked outrage across the nation for the excessive use of gunfire used. While the five cops faced charges including reckless endangerment, manslaughter and assault, they were acquitted of all of them. The verdict fueled protest marches led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Nicole Paultre-Bell, who took his last name in his memory. Public condemnation eventually resulted in an overhaul of the NYPD’s undercover procedures, including mandatory alcohol testing if a gun is used. In 2012, three of the officers were forced to resign while Isnora was fired.
Of their son, Bell’s mom remembers his serious side while his dad, William, remembers a smile that lit up the room. To preserve their son’s memories, William regularly speaks at schools to mentor youth while Valerie sets up support groups for parents who’ve lost a child.
Together, the Bells also opened up a community center in Jamaica in his name.