Mass protests in New York were stretching into their third day when a new grand jury was announced on Friday. Not for the case of Eric Garner—a previous grand jury’s decision earlier this week not to indict the officer seen choking him on film before he died sparked the current protests. The latest grand jury will investigate the death of Akai Gurley, another unarmed black man who was killed by a police officer months after Garner’s death, in what the department says was an accidental shooting.
New York’s police commissioner Bill Bratton addressed the ongoing protests to a group of reporters Friday. "These things tend to peter out on their own,” he said. "People get tired of marching around aimlessly. … The history of these things is these don't go on forever.” But with a new case involving a black victim of police violence approaching a grand jury, the current protests could go on or return after a lull depending on how the grand jury votes.
Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson explained his decision to impanel a grand jury in a statement released Friday. “I expect to present evidence regarding the November 20, 2014, shooting of Akai Gurley to a grand jury because it is important to get to the bottom of what happened,” Thompson said. “I pledge to conduct a full and fair investigation and to give the grand jury all of the information necessary to do its job.”
Critics of grand juries, including lawmakers in New York, point out that they almost never bring charges against police officers and have called for special prosecutors in cases involving law enforcement. Thompson defended his decision not to seek a special prosecutor.
“As to those who have called for a special prosecutor to handle this case, I respectfully disagree,” Thompson said. “I was elected by the people of Brooklyn to do this job without fear or favor and that is exactly what I intend to do.”
On Nov. 20, Gurley was with his girlfriend when he opened the door to a stairwell in the Pink Houses, a public housing development in Brooklyn. Two police assigned to the apartment on a detail were doing a “vertical patrol” up the stairs when the door opened. One of the rookie officers, Peter Liang, was walking with a flashlight in one hand and his gun in the other. When the door opened Liang fired one shot striking Gurley in the chest and killing him.
New York police commissioner Bill Bratton called the shooting “a very unfortunate tragedy,” and said at the time that it “may have been in fact an accidental discharge.”
But new allegations reported Friday by the Daily News, call the officer’s actions after the shooting, as Gurley lay dying, into question. According to the an anonymous police source who spoke with the Daily News, Liang and his partner “were incommunicado for more than six and a half minutes” after the shooting. During that time Liang allegedly texted his representative at the police union. "That's showing negligence," the officer who spoke with the News said of Liang’s radio silence while he allegedly spoke with the union.
A union representative told Buzzfeed News that they never received a text from Liang. “The Daily News story about the officer texting a union delegate does not appear to be true. We have over 400 delegates but the ones that serve the area he was working in did not receive any texts from him.”
The Daily News account also claimed that Liang was never supposed to be patrolling in the stairwell where the shooting occurred. "[Deputy Inspector Miguel Iglesias]' philosophy was, 'I want a presence on the street, in the courtyards— and if they go into the buildings they were just supposed to check out the lobby.’" A different police source told the Daily News that Liang’s commander was irate after the shooting and said, "I told them not to do verticals."
Thompson’s statement announcing the grand jury did not address the Daily News’ allegations. “I wouldn’t want to speculate on that,” Lupe Todd, a spokesman for the DA said, when asked how they would affect possible criminal charges against the officers involved. “Wherever the investigation leads is where the district attorney plans to go,” Todd told The Daily Beast.
Later on Friday night, a steady rain fell in Brooklyn outside the Brown Memorial Baptist Church where Akai Gurley’s wake was being held. Two young black men stood under a scaffold outside the church trying to keep dry. Kevin and Rashid watched as people left the church and hurried under umbrellas to their cars, waiting to see if there was still time for them to go in and pay their respects.
“We’re part of this community where police are just discharging their weapons on young black men. No charges, no indictments,” Kevin said. Then he asked, “What do we do about this?”
“We stand and we protest. OK. Then we tear up our streets. For what? We cannot keep on doing this. We have to do something that’s for the people, by the people. Work with the police as much as we can, try to come to a middle ground, try to come to a solution.”
Getting to that middle ground would require police, “first off to communicate with people that’s in the community,” Kevin said.
“Everybody can’t be a suspect. We can’t feel like we’re threatened, we have to feel comfortable in our neighborhoods. And they have to feel comfortable in our neighborhoods.”