The officers were accused of firing nearly 50 shots at three young men in a car outside a nightclub, killing Sean Bell and seriously wounding two of his friends. Two other officers involved were not indicted.
The eight-count indictment charges detectives Michael Oliver, who fired 31 times, and Gescard Isnora, a decorated undercover officer who fired 11 shots, with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Monday.
WCBS in New York reports that first-degree manslaughter is classified as a violent felony with mandated jail time — a maximum of 25 years — if the officers are convicted, Brown said.
Detective Marc Cooper, who fired four shots, faces a misdemeanor endangerment charge, Brown said. The indictment says he fired a bullet that went through the window of an occupied train station.
Oliver also was charged with endangerment in connection with a bullet that went through the window of an occupied house. All three were suspended without pay.
Two other policemen were not charged but have been placed on desk duty along with their supervisor as the NYPD continues its internal investigation.
"We are a long way from a conviction," said defense attorney Philip Karasyk, who represents Isnora.
The case renewed allegations that the NYPD is trigger-happy, as well as accusations of racism. Bell was black, as are the other victims; three of the officers are black, and two are white.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said at a news conference with the wounded men and Bell's fiance that the indictment "falls short of what we want. Clearly, all five officers should be charged; all officers acted in concert."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged that some people would be disappointed in the grand jury's decision.
"We have to respect the result of our justice system," he said. "Although a trial will decide whether crimes were committed in this case, day in and day out the NYPD does an incredible job under very difficult circumstances."
The three policemen surrendered to the NYPD's Bureau of Internal Affairs on Monday morning, then were whisked to the Queens court complex. A phalanx of plainclothes law enforcers and family members surrounded them as they were rushed into the building for fingerprinting and processing.
Later, all three pleaded not guilty at their arraignment. Sharpton was present in the courtroom, along with shooting survivors Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield. Also attending were Bell's mother and Nicole Paultre Bell, who was engaged to Bell and legally took his name after he died.
Each officer stood, hands clasped, for the entire 20-minute hearing. Oliver and Cooper looked straight ahead; Isnora occasionally bowed his head.
State Supreme Court Justice Randall Eng set bail for Oliver and Isnora at $250,000 bond, or $100,000 cash. Cooper was released without bail.
Brown said he would oppose any attempts to get a change of venue for the trial.
"This is where public opinion is equally divided, in my opinion," he said.
Grand jurors declined to indict on the more serious counts of second-degree murder, and attempted murder, or the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide.
Bell was killed Nov. 25 as he left his bachelor party.
Police have said the officers were involved in an undercover investigation at the nightclub when they overheard a conversation that convinced them the men were going to their car to retrieve a gun. They have said that Bell's car hit an unmarked police vehicle and that the officers believed someone in Bell's car was reaching for a gun when they opened fire. No gun was found.
Bloomberg said the case had led Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly "to rightly examine several aspects of police operations, including undercover work and contagious shooting."