On Thursday evening in a packed Brooklyn courtroom, something unusual happened: A police officer was convicted for wrongly killing an unarmed black man.
As the verdict was read out declaring Officer Peter Liang guilty in the 2014 shooting death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, the cop held his head in anguish, just days after he delivered tear-ridden testimony about the November night in question. He's booked on second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct charges, which could bring up to 15 years behind bars, and faces sentencing on April 14.
Almost immediately after the verdict, a police spokesperson told reporters Liang was no longer a member of the New York City Police Department. Still, in light of police brutality issues nationwide, the Gurley trial was an unusual case.
For one, it didn't feature video of the encounter, leaving the jury to make do with the optics of the situation: an officer nervously firing off his gun in a dark, decrepit staircase of a housing project and fatally hitting Gurley, who was coming downstairs with his girlfriend. At the time of the young man's death, Liang was conducting a controversial procedure known as a vertical patrol, where police officers stringently check each floor of high-crime projects, from the roof to the lobby, for shady behavior.
Crucially, prosecutors did not argue Liang had homicidal intent. In that respect, the shooting did not have the murderous undertones of, say, the white officer who killed Walter Scott in South Carolina last year, captured on video repeatedly shooting the unarmed man in the back as he ran away. Instead, the Brooklyn district attorney's office focused on Liang's alleged negligence, like not administering CPR—which he was trained in—and apparently being more concerned with his job's fate than Gurley's health.
"What we are saying, and what we said in this case, is that we have to have police officers who follow the training they're given," Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson told reporters outside the courtroom Thursday. The verdict, he said, was "in no way a conviction of the NYPD," adding that officers have "the most dangerous job on earth."
Almost immediately, however, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association—which had its union members noticeably absent throughout the trial—disagreed. Patrick J. Lynch, the union chief, suggested the verdict would drastically impact the way cops conduct themselves in high-crime places like the Pink Houses, the complex where Gurley was shot and killed. The line of argument has been made nationwide, as pro-law enforcement forces have suggested increased scrutiny in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement jeopardizes officers' lives.
"We are very disappointed in the verdict and believe that the jury came to an absolutely wrong decision," Patrick J. Lynch, the union chief, said in a statement. "This was a terrible and tragic accident and not a crime. This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident."
We asked some New York City police officers if that's true: Will the Gurley verdict really affect their job?
One veteran officer in North Brooklyn—whose name, as required by agency rule, cannot be published—says vertical patrols are not bad policy, like the highly criticized stop-and-frisk tactic. But, the officer argues, "if you do it, it should be done correctly," referring to a situation last week, in the Bronx's Melrose Houses, where two officers were shot by a man during a vertical patrol when they tried to give him a summons for drinking.
"It shouldn't be about getting the numbers," the officer continues.
In a less confrontational situation, like with Gurley, the cop believes Liang should've had a flashlight in hand instead of his gun, in order to see what was around the corner. "Take your gun out when you need to," the officer told me. "Just don't go waving it around." Gun safety issues, the cop continued, are "really serious to officers."
Still, the officer thinks race is in play here, referring to the widely publicized death of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed black 18-year-old who was killed by Officer Richard Haste four years ago inside his own home in the Bronx. Haste, a white officer, not only got off, but even recently got a raise.
"I think that if [Liang] was white, he would've gotten off," the active-duty officer says. "That kid in the Bronx was murdered, and that officer doesn't get in trouble? This is race, and they're making an example of the wrong person."
"If you're gonna set an example," the cop continues, "they should make it with everyone."
Another, younger officer I spoke with disagrees, arguing the Liang verdict was "definitely" the wrong decision. The cop, who knew Liang personally, says he feels bad for his peer because he's a "nice guy" who had just made a mistake, albeit a tragic one.
Meanwhile, Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD officer and Brooklyn prosecutor who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks the PBA has a "great case to make this a labor issue." The trial, O'Donnell believes, was special.
"This was about firearm safety," he tells me. "And it was a reminder that the policies in place right now are screwed up. Who created this imagery of the Pink Houses being so dangerous? Who put rookies there? What training and oversight existed for these patrols?"
O'Donnell argues the Gurley case—as well as the notorious Eric Garner tragedy, when the 43-year-old black man was killed in a chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014—are "glaring examples" of how the cops are used as "cannon fodder" to protect the department's flawed internal policies. In the Garner situation, the former prosecutor wants to know why an officer had to arrest Garner for selling cigarettes, and why he resorted to a chokehold, which is technically illegal by NYPD standards.
"The institution covers the institution, always," he explains. "These cops are dispensable. But this is a political thing, not a police thing. The politicians at the top are not responsible for the situations at the bottom. The department is the department's own worst enemy, and if you ask anyone there about this, they'll tell you the policies are bad."
In fact, another major union official, Ed Mullins of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, suggested after the Gurley verdict that the vertical patrol procedure, as a whole, needs to be overhauled. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, he argued, "who so often brags of the evolution of policing, now needs to suspend the efforts of vertical patrol and re-evaluate his policy."
O'Donnell hopes the Gurley verdict leads police officials to have a policy-driven discussion as to how to ensure officers, like Liang, do not put themselves in excessive danger when protecting the public.
"Anyone who does police work knows that more police officers does not necessarily help a situation," the former cop says. "They need to know what the residents want in their homes, rather than just imposing what they think is best."
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