Last fall, one of the underlying themes of some conversations at pro-cop rallies, police union gatherings, and online cop forums was the idea that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were the unfortunate but justified consequences of resisting arrest. The lesser-known murder of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn last November, however, was different. Nobody denied that Gurley's death was not a horrible mistake, not even the cops.
In the words of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton the day after Gurley's death, this was a "total innocent"—a 28-year-old, unarmed black man leaving his girlfriend's apartment at a housing project in East New York when he was accidentally shot and killed in a dark stairwell by rookie officer Peter Liang. The Daily News reported not long afterward that Liang left Gurley bleeding to death while he texted his union rep.
But now something super rare is happening: The cop who killed the young father is actually going to trial. On Tuesday, law enforcement officials announced that a grand jury has decided to indict Liang for second-degree manslaughter. A source told the Daily News that Liang could face up to 15 years because of the recklessness suggested by the manslaughter charge. He's set to surrender to authorities on Wednesday before being arraigned in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
A spokesperson for Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, whose office convened the grand jury, declined to comment to VICE on the decision. The New York Police Department also has been repeatedly reached for comment, and we have yet to hear back. But even the most ardent pro-cop voices don't seem to be too angry about this course of events. Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association who has heavily criticized the police reform protesters and Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in a statement, "This officer deserves the same due process afforded to anyone involved in the accidental death of another."
Ed Mullins, the head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, added, "I'm sad that he was indicted. I don't know exactly what transpired in that hallway, but I believe it's a truly accidental incident."
Liang, who had been on the police force for 18 months at the time of the shooting, reportedly used the same hand he was holding a gun with to open a door to the apartment building's eighth-floor stairwell. The gun accidentally discharged, hitting Gurley, who was on the landing one floor down, in the chest. He died soon after.
Liang and his partner were assigned to patrol the building's lobby, not the staircase. In light of the mistake, the rookie cop has since been assigned to modified desk duty and forced to surrender his badge and gun to higher-ups as investigations proceed. The NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau is conducting its own probe into the incident, but given their track record of leniency, that won't likely amount to much.
Take the 2004 shooting of Timothy Stansbury. Stansbury, an unarmed 19-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Officer Richard Neri as he was heading to the roof at a party in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Just like in Gurley's case, the mayor and police commissioner admitted it was a terrible mistake. Bloomberg even visited the home of Stansbury's family.
But Neri was never indicted. Instead, an internal probe resulted in a 30-day suspension. His gun was taken from him permanently, but as of 2011, Neri was still making nearly $80,000 annually as an NYPD officer.
That Gurley's killer was indicted is a welcome breath of fresh air after a months-long stretch of hopelessness summed up by headlines like, "Why It's Impossible to Indict a Cop." 2014 saw Officer Darren Wilson get off scot-free after the death of Michael Brown, as Daniel Pantaleo, the plainclothes officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold. Officer Christopher Manney enjoyed similar leniency when he was exonerated in the death of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, as did the unnamed police officers who killed John Crawford in an Ohio Walmart.
But in all of those situations, the police had a reason—they claimed—to use fatal retaliation. Michael Brown, in Wilson's eyes, was a threat to the cop's life. Eric Garner refused to be handcuffed by Pantaleo. Dontre Hamilton had allegedly grabbed Manney's baton and hit him on the side of the neck with it. And Crawford was waving his somewhat real-looking BB gun in the air at the department store.
Gurley's death was more clear-cut. It also probably helped that Thompson was elected last year on a platform of police reform, whereas Garner's grand jury came from notoriously pro-cop Staten Island, where District Attorney Dan Donovan—who's now running for Congress—is widely suspected of letting politics creep in.
Now we'll see what Liang—who is just the fourth New York City cop indicted for killing someone since 1999—fares in a courtroom.
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