The System Worked: Cop Indicted in Killing
No murders in New York for nine days and a grand jury indictment in the shooting of an unarmed man? It’s time to thank the NYPD.
The City of New York went nine days without a murder as of Wednesday afternoon.
In a city that two decades ago averaged more than six a day.
None in more than a week may be a record going all the way back to 17th-century New Amsterdam. And even then some drunken Dutchman probably let loose with a blunderbuss against one of his fellow colonists.
Of course, nobody is thanking the cops for this modern-day miracle.
Such an accomplishment should earn them a parade along with the whole city’s gratitude. But hardly anybody even seemed to notice.
At least there were no longer masses of protesters in the street cursing the cops and calling them racist murderers, as they did after a Staten Island grand jury failed to return an indictment in the Eric Garner case. Those demonstrations largely ended after a maniac executed two uniformed cops as they sat in a radio car in Brooklyn.
And the protests would not likely have been revived even if a Brooklyn grand jury had failed to indict the jittery young cop who fired a shot into a darkened stairwell in a Brooklyn housing project back in November.
The bullet had ricocheted off a cinderblock wall and fatally wounded Akai Gurley, making him another young black man killed by the police.
Gurley had been unarmed and manifestly innocent, but there had been no video and the cop was not white, but Chinese.
Also, the Brooklyn incident was not precipitated by “broken windows” policing, as was the Staten Island case, where the cops initially approached Garner for selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes.
The Gurley case was preceded by a broken elevator that forced Gurley and his friend to take the stairs and broken light fixtures that left the stairwell in darkness.
Still, we will never know for sure how the city would have reacted if 27-year-old Police Officer Peter Liang had been held blameless in Gurley’s death.
On Tuesday, a grand jury handed down an indictment charging Liang with manslaughter.
Liang surrendered Wednesday morning at the 84th Precinct stationhouse in downtown Brooklyn, where Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu worked before they were murdered in their squad car two months ago by a madman.
In the afternoon, Liang arrived at Brooklyn Supreme Court. A handful of protesters were standing out front, several carrying signs saying, “Black Live Matter,” which happens to be the basic principle behind the crime strategies with which the NYPD has so dramatically reduced crime in the city.
The protesters seemed diminished in passion as well as numbers. Even they must understand that most people in the city would say the system seems to be working reasonably well in this latest case.Just after 2 p.m., Liang entered the second-floor courtroom in a gray suit, white shirt, and light gray tie. He stood with his hands folded before him, seemingly not a bad person, but by all indications somebody who discovered too late that he should never have entered the dangerous business of keeping the city safe.
As recounted to the court by Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner, Liang was with his partner on the eighth floor of a building at the Pink Houses when he peered through a window cut into the door leading to the stairwell.
Liang saw that the stairwell was dark and he is said to have held his flashlight with his right hand while he drew his Glock semiautomatic pistol with his left. He faced no threat, but was apparently prompted by a bit of the fear that gripped the whole city.
Liang and all members of the NYPD are told that they can exercise their own discretion in taking out their guns, but must keep their finger to the side of the weapon and the trigger guard unless there is an immediate need to use deadly force.
“Never on the trigger,” the prosecutor noted.
The prosecutor then said, “The defendant ignored this training.”
Whatever caused Liang’s index finger to flex, a single shot struck the wall right next to Gurley, who had just entered the stairway from the seventh floor with a friend. The bullet tore into his heart, killing him.
Liang is said to have returned with his partner to the eighth-floor hallway. “I’m going to be fired,” he told her, as recounted by the prosecutor.
Liang and the partner allegedly argued for four long minutes about whether he should call a supervisor to report the shooting.
The two cops finally returned to the stairwell and descended the steps to discover the dying Gurley. His friend was desperately administering CPR, coached by a neighbor who was relaying instructions over the phone from an emergency operator.
Maybe Liang was so panicked and stunned that he lost touch with the impulse to help that is the most common reason people join the NYPD.
The most shocking part of the tale as told by the prosecutor came when Liang did nothing at all. “He just stood there and then stepped around [Gurley],” the prosecutor said.
There was no stepping around this manslaughter charge. Liang pleaded not guilty and Judge Daniel Chun released him on his own recognizance pending his next court date.
“If he was a black man, he’d be shackled!” one of the dead man’s aunts called out from the spectator benches. “Murderer!”
Somebody else shouted, “The whole system is guilty!” But the words sounded hollow just moments after this cop had been formally charged with manslaughter. There were no crowds outside ready to take up a chant.
The court officers ordered everyone to remain seated while Liang departed with a small entourage. The handful of protesters stood outside the offices of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson as he held a press conference up on the 19th floor.
“An innocent unarmed man was shot and killed by a New York City police officer,” Thompson told reporters. “All he was doing was walking down the stairs with a friend. He had done absolutely nothing wrong… He was a man and the father of a 2-year-old daughter.”
Thompson reminded everyone that he had promised at the time of the shooting that his office would conduct a full investigation and follow the truth wherever it led.
“And that’s exactly what we did,” he now said.
He allowed that his office does not believe that Liang intended to kill Gurley. But the shooting seemed to be more than simply an accidental discharge.
“Officer Liang is the one who pulled the trigger,” Thompson said. “In order to fire the gun, you need a certain amount of pressure.”
Thompson dismissed any suggestion that the investigation had been influenced by the furor over the failure of grand juries to return an indictment in Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island or in Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. He insisted his office had only followed the evidence in pursuit of the truth.
“We conduct our business in a fair manner,” he said.
He was here echoing his mother. She was one of the first female street cops in the NYPD. And, when asked after her retirement what kind of cop she had been, she had replied, “I was a fair officer.”
As the son of a fair officer, Thompson emphasized that he had indicted only Liang, not the thousands of good cops in the NYPD.
“Make no mistake about it, the city is safer and stronger because of the sacrifice and dedication of the New York City Police Department,” Thompson said.
Thompson reported that his office had been greatly assisted in this investigation by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.
“So I want to thank Commissioner Bratton and all the outstanding members of the NYPD who helped us,” Thompson added.
Thompson noted that his own investigators had even worked on Thanksgiving night, knocking on every door in the building where the shooting occurred, seeking anything that anybody might have seen or heard. He emphasized that he took no joy in the outcome.
“There are no winners here,” he said. “An innocent man’s life has been taken and a young police officer who joined the NYPD to serve and protect the city now stands accused of taking that life.”
Thompson spoke of Liang’s failure to administer medical aid to the dying Gurley. But Thompson made sure also to note the response of the cops who heard a radio report of shots fired after the incident.
“Dozens of police officers raced toward that building believing there was an active shooter,” Thompson said. He described them dashing toward danger with a single purpose, one that would have been the same whether it was the richest address in Manhattan or this Brooklyn housing project.
“To protect lives,” Thompson said. “Because that’s what police officers do.”
Thompson recounted what these other cops did upon seeing Gurley’s bleeding form.
“They dropped on their knees and they tried to save his life,” Thompson reported, again saying, “Because that’s what police officers do.”
And on a cold afternoon when one cop was indicted for manslaughter, the efforts of all the other cops were making New York so safe that the city had not reported a murder for nine days.