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Bystanders wounded in Empire State shooting hit by police

Those injured near the Empire State Building were hit by police gunfire, six by bullet fragments, when officers fatally shot a man who had killed a former co-worker.

Bystanders and a police officer stand on Fifth Avenue after the incident outside the Empire State Building on Friday. Mark Lennihan / AP Photo
Bystanders and a police officer stand on Fifth Avenue after the incident outside the Empire State Building on Friday. Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

NEW YORK // The bystanders wounded on Friday near the Empire State Building were hit by police gunfire, six by bullet fragments, when officers fatally shot a man who had killed a former co-worker, authorities confirmed yesterday.

The shooting was a rare example of the drawbacks posed by so-called hollow-point bullets. The New York Police Department started using those 14 years ago to reduce the likelihood of hitting bystanders, even though in this case the use of such bullets may have resulted in the opposite effect.

The bullets have become standard issue for many law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, as a replacement for traditional bullets that can pass right through a suspect.

They are considered safer for bystanders because hollow-point bullets are designed to mushroom when they strike a person. They cause massive injuries, but rarely exit.

However, the hollow-point bullets are more prone to fragment or ricochet when they hit a hard object such as the concrete planters used at the popular tourist attraction as security barriers against terrorist attacks, studies show.

Six of the nine bystanders wounded on Friday were hit by shrapnel caused when the hollow bullets fragmented as they ricocheted off the planters, and three by bullets, police said.

New York police spokesman Paul Browne confirmed that the two officers who shot out-of-work fashion designer Jeffrey Johnson used hollow-point bullets.

Johnson, said by officials to have been laid off from his job last year, had fatally shot former colleague Steve Ercolino with whom he had been feuding.

Former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said in situations like the one the two officers faced - an armed gunman waving a pistol on a crowded street - stopping the attacker swiftly is the primary goal.

"The idea (of using hollow-point bullets) is to move quickly, to stop the threat," he said. "You can knock someone down with one or two rounds a lot of the time."

Until 1998, the department had used what are known as full-metal-jacket bullets, which, enveloped in a thin layer of copper, often pass through a suspect and hit bystanders.

"As in all things with weapons and ammunition, there's certain trade-offs that you have to make," Mr Bratton said of the shrapnel created by police bullets.

On Friday, the two officers, Craig Matthews and Robert Sinishtaj, fired on Johnson who appeared in a dramatic video to be drawing his .45-calibre pistol as he walked toward them.

A witness had told police that Johnson fired at the officers, but authorities say ballistics evidence doesn't support that. Johnson's gun held seven rounds, they said. He fired five times at Mr Ercolino, one round was still in the gun and one was ejected when officers secured it, authorities said.

Johnson could be seen in the video doubling over, wobbling and then collapsing while bystanders scattered.

Three of the nine wounded bystanders remain hospitalised, though none of the injuries are thought to be life threatening, police said. The other six were treated and released.

The pair will be assigned to administrative duty pending a police review of the shooting, a standard procedure whenever an officer discharges his weapon in the line of duty. The officers were also treated for trauma.

The officers who fired were part a detail regularly assigned to patrol landmarks such as the 443metre-tall skyscraper since the September 11 attacks, officials said.

The skyscraper remained open on Friday throughout the mayhem, although its workers became witnesses. "We were just working here and we just heard bang, bang, bang!" said Mohammed Bachchu, a worker at a nearby souvenir shop. He said he rushed from the building and saw seven people lying on the ground, covered in blood.

Rebecca Fox said she saw people running down the street and initially thought it was a celebrity sighting, but then she saw a woman shot in the foot and a man dead on the ground.

"I was scared and shocked and literally shaking," she said. "It was like 'CSI,' but it was real."