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Questions of race surround N.Y. shooting

The similarities are striking: A young black man dies in a hail of police bullets, and when the chaos clears it turns out he was unarmed.

When 23-year-old Sean Bell was killed last weekend by officers who fired 50 shots, it brought to mind other police shootings, including another 23-year-old - Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant shot to death by four white police officers in 1999. Diallo was struck by 19 of the 41 bullets fired at him.

Other killings of black men by police in New York also have provoked controversy, but there was a difference this time - while Bell and his two companions were black, the five officers were black and Hispanic as well as white.

But advocates and legal experts say that doesn't mean the shooting wasn't affected by race.

"It doesn't matter what color cop it is," said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. "The overwhelming number of victims of questionable police shootings have been young black men."

"There's a perception that black male youth are more dangerous, more violent and more likely to be armed than their white counterparts," said activist lawyer Ron Kuby. "That concern about young black men permeates the police department and results in police shooting black youth under circumstances where they would not shoot white people."

Bell was buried Saturday. After his burial, the New Black Panther Party organized a "March of Outrage."

While race plays a role, it's not the only issue that needs to be looked at, Kuby and other legal experts said. Police need to have serious conversations about violence and force, and also get better training in ways to deal with tense situations, experts say.

"The training issue is a big issue," said Karen Blum, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. "Even if you took race out of this picture, these officers were not trained well in how to respond in this kind of situation."

Police and city officials point out that the New York Police Department has become much more diverse since the Diallo shooting.

"We think we've made great strides, but obviously there are people ... who think this was racially motivated," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "I don't think that was the case, but it's clear that people in this city do feel that they are sometimes stopped, frisked, whatever, based on their ethnicity. That is totally unacceptable and we'll continue to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen."

Members of the New York Police Department, the nation's largest with more than 37,000 uniformed officers, have killed 11 people this year. That compares with 19 people who have been killed by police in Philadelphia, and with 12 in Las Vegas, which has about 2,170 officers. Police have killed 12 people so far this year in suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County, which with 700,000 residents has one-tenth the population of New York.

The Miami Police Department, which overhauled its use-of-force policies several years ago, says it has had no fatal shootings by its officers this year.

Officials are still examining the latest shooting, which happened Nov. 25 after Bell and his friends left a bachelor party the night before his wedding. Police have said that Bell's vehicle hit one officer and an unmarked police car, and officers apparently thought one of Bell's companions was about to get a gun.

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