NYC Police Officer Peter Liang, center, after pleading not guilty back in February. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
When police officers kill civilians, the chances of criminal prosecution are vanishingly small. No charges were brought against the Cleveland cop who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, for instance, nor the New York City officer who used a banned chokehold maneuver on Eric Garner—even though both incidents were captured on video. Among the thousands of fatal police shootings between 2005 and mid-2015, a tiny proportion—just 54—resulted in official charges, according to a Washington Post analysis.
But the people who stacked the benches of a Brooklyn courtroom Monday morning witnessed what could be an increasingly common sight in America: a criminal trial for a police officer who killed an unarmed civilian. The opening arguments in New York State Supreme Court centered on Peter Liang, an NYPD officer who shot and killed Akai Gurley, an innocent and unarmed black man, during a routine patrol of a Brooklyn housing project.
Around 11 PM on November 20, 2014, Gurley and his friend Melissa Butler were leaving her place at the Pink Houses, an East New York housing project. As was often the case, the building's elevators seemed to be broken, so they decided to take the poorly-lit stairs from the seventh floor. Simultaneously, Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, were conducting what's known as a "vertical patrol"—itself a controversial practice where police monitor crime by sweeping the building's roof and staircases from top to bottom.
"Peter Liang, with a flashlight in one hand, burst into the stairwell, turned left, and pulled the gun's trigger and fired a shot down toward the seventh floor," Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner said in his opening statement."There was nothing threatening happening. His partner Landau never even pulled out his gun." (Landau has reportedly been offered immunity in exchange for his testimony.)
Liang's bullet ricocheted off a cinderblock wall and struck 28-year-old Gurley, who managed to scramble down two flights of stairs before collapsing. But three floors above, according to prosecutors, the cops argued about whether they should alert their supervisors that Liang had fired his 9 millimeter Glock sidearm.
"Neither man called in to say a word," Fliedner said, adding that Liang was "whining and moaning" that he would lose his job. At one point, Landau apparently refused to give Liang his cell phone to call a supervisor. "Neither man checked the stairwell immediately to make sure everything was okay," Fliedner told jurors.
Meanwhile, Butler frantically looked for someone to help Gurley, who was bleeding to death from a chest wound in the stairwell. That's when she found Melissa Lopez, who lived in a fourth floor apartment and ultimately called 9-1-1. "I saw her standing there, crying, asking for help, her hands all bloody," Lopez testified.
An EMS dispatcher told Lopez to give Butler a towel to stop the bleeding. She helped relay instructions from the dispatcher on the phone to Butler, who began preforming CPR. At some point, Liang—who had been on the force less than 18 months—and his partner heard the commotion and discovered Gurley and Butler. But even then, according to Lopez, neither Liang nor his partner offered any help.
Prosecutors argued that despite his training—which included CPR—and the fact that the NYPD modifies its triggers to make them harder to pull accidentally, "Peter Liang broke rule after rule after rule." The evidence, he said, supports the charges against Liang of criminally negligent homicide, second-degree manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct—charges that were the result of a grand jury process.
Liang's defense attorney, Rae Koshetz, of course, offered a starkly different assessment of that night. It was a tragic accident, she said, and certainly not a crime.
Liang was working overtime in "what may be the most crime-ridden housing project in the city of New York," Koshetz said. "Suddenly, the gun accidentally discharges. [Liang] is beside himself, in a state of shock. He goes back inside the lighted hallway for, at most, a couple of minutes. He's shaken. He's terrified. But totally unaware that his bullet has struck anything."
Once he discovered what happened, according to Liang's defense attorney, he sat against a wall and started crying—effectively unable to help, even once other police officers started arriving at the scene. He was so despondent, Liang had to be taken to the hospital himself, his attorney argued. (For her part, Lopez, the neighbor who called 9-1-1, testified she didn't see Liang crying.) That the accidental shot would fatally strike Gurley "was a million to one possibility," Koshetz added.
The trial, which is expected to last through at least the first week of February, will probably not be the last word on what happened that November night; Akai Gurley's family has filed a wrongful death suit against the city.
Still, given the rarity of criminal prosecutions against police officers, the case will likely reverberate through police reform circles around the country. Even if Liang's attorneys don't want the jury to think about it that way.
"The New York Police Department is not on trial here," Koshetz said. "This is not a referendum on policing in the United States."
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