Seven months into his administration, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio began encountering something that has become a sort of litmus test for Gotham chieftains: the widely-publicized death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police officers. The tragic chokehold death of Staten Islander Eric Garner this July, a video of which has since become a memento of a tense summer nationwide, continues to fester.
Last night, it happened yet again in the depths of Brooklyn.
Akai Gurley. Twenty-eight years old. A black man. Shot by NYPD officer Peter Liang. Gurley and Melissa Butler, his girlfriend, were leaving her place in East New York's Pink Houses, a housing development prone to high crime, and decided to take the dimly-lit stairs on the eighth floor. Liang and his partner entered the staircase from a floor below. Liang, who had been on the force for 18 months, had his gun out, and accidentally shot Gurley. Gurley went on to die later in the night at a nearby hospital.
"The cop didn't present himself, he just shot him in the chest," Januce Butler, Melissa's sister, told the New York Times. "They didn't see their face or nothing."
What's most interesting about this tragedy is how New York City officialdom chose to respond. NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton held a press conference early Friday at 1 Police Plaza, and told reporters exactly what advocates of police reform needed to hear. "The deceased is a total innocent who was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type," Bratton said. "It appears to be an accidental discharge, with no intention to impact anyone. A very unfortunate tragedy."
In essence, the Commissioner admitted that an officer under his command killed an innocent man who wasn't doing a damn thing wrong. And for many in New York, that admission by the top cop is news in itself: as Chris Smith points out, it's something that we haven't really seen since 2004, when Timothy Stansbury, 19 and unarmed, was accidentally killed by a police officer in a stairwell on his way to a birthday party. Back then, Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the Stanburys and apologized almost immediately.
"Bratton isn't breaking new ground here," Eugene O'Donnell, a law enforcement expert at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me. "But with Garner and Gurley, these are two totally different situations: one was the use of force, and one was an accident. But still, with Garner, it is the responsibility of the higher-ups to say that this was an irresponsible arrest for an unjust crime."
The thing is: that didn't happen. The day after Garner was killed, Bratton said he "personally [didn't] think race was a factor" in his death. Afterwards, he went on to defend broken windows policing, his style of law enforcement that targets men (mostly minority) like Garner for low-level infractions, or, in this case, selling illegal, cheap cigarettes on the streets. And, as of this article's publication, the grand jury is still debating whether to charge the officers with what the Medical Examiner's office has deemed as a homicide.
And then we have Mayor Bill de Blasio, who postponed his family trip to Italy when he heard the news of Garner's death. Soon after, the Brooklynite told his citizens to listen to the police when being arrested—translation: do not resist, like Mr. Garner did. More recently, the mayor voiced opposition to a City Council bill that would ban chokeholds, arguing that the "best way to handle that is through NYPD policy," even if that policy has its occasional fatal slip-up.
But with the death of Akai Gurley, a very different tone came from Mayor de Blasio Friday, as if he's learned a lesson or two about what the bully pulpit entails. "This is a tragic situation," he told reporters at an unrelated press conference. "We lost a life today, and I feel very humanly about that. But it does appear to be a tragic accident."
To satisfy a tense populace, Mayor Bill de Blasio may need more than just rhetoric. Especially when another video emerged of a guy getting the the shit beaten out of him by cops, this time for skipping a $2.50 subway fare—also a broken windows crime—on Thursday.
"Retraining will not solve this problem," Priscilla Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform, said in a statement. "Meaningful and swift accountability in cases of brutality and killing of unarmed people by the NYPD is required to send a message that police brutality and misconduct is unacceptable in NYC."
In other words: Your move, Bill.
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