A Killing At City Hall

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New York City's security systems have been among the strictest in the country since Sept. 11, 2001. But the city learned today that those measures are not infallible, after a gunman entered City Hall in Manhattan and shot a councilman to death.

None of the metal detectors, security guards or NYPD officers patrolling City Hall could help James Davis, 41, when a political rival identified by police as Othniel Askew, 31, pulled out a .40-caliber silver Smith & Wesson and opened fire.

"Witnesses say they saw Askew standing over Davis, repeatedly firing shots," said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The two men were standing on the balcony of the council chambers when the shooting erupted.

"All of a sudden there was a 'Pow, pow, pow,'" said councilwoman Gale Brewer, who was sitting at the back of the crowded chamber. "I dove under my desk ... [then] one of my colleagues grabbed my hand and said, 'Run.'" Community groups receiving ceremonial tributes from the council were caught in the chaos, including some young children affiliated with a local Puerto Rican community group. "The little girls... were hysterical," said Debbie Almontaser, whose organization Women in Islam was also being honored. "They were crying, they were very upset." Almontaser, who had taken refuge in a nearby bathroom with two of the girls, called police from her cell phone before detectives evacuated them out of the building.

A retired NYPD officer and crusader against urban violence, Davis appeared not to have had time to draw or fire his own licensed holstered handgun after Askew opened fire. Police say Askew fired 14 shots; two hit Davis in the torso. A plainclothes officer assigned to Speaker Gifford Miller's security detail returned fire from the chamber floor, and hit Askew six times in the chest and arm. Askew, who was planning to run against Davis in a primary election this fall, died of his injuries.

In the hours after the shooting, which occurred just after 2pm, New Yorkers were horrified that a gunman could have brought a weapon into a municipal building after Sept. 11. In this case, Davis had brought his killer into the building himself, inadvertently helping him bypass security. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said security videotapes — which do not record audio — showed Askew and Davis outside City Hall, where they had a conversation. They then went through the security booth at the west gate, but did not pass through the metal detector. Bloomberg said city council members, as well as the mayor, were able to enter the building without passing through the same stringent security measures reserved for visitors. Tragically for Davis, guests of council members were also able to bypass security.

That policy changed immediately after the two deaths. "Starting right now, the city council, speaker and I will be doing it, as will our staff," said Bloomberg. "If you don't go through the magnetometer, you won't get into City Hall, period."

James Davis was the chair of the council's Juvenile Justice committee, and was known throughout the country as a tireless advocate for youth. In 1990, he founded the not-for-profit "'Love Yourself' Stop the Violence" to fight guns, drugs, teen pregnancy and delinquency. In 1994, he convinced Toys R Us to remove 'look-alike' toy guns from its shelves after a spate of incidents in which police officers thought children were bearing real weapons. He then turned his attention to MTV, asking that violent and sexually explicit music videos be restricted on air.

"I look at this like a war," said Davis of his work with the organization. "It's my mission in life to do whatever is necessary to rid violence from our communities." Unfortunately, no one was able to stop Davis from becoming a victim of that violence himself.