The tragic execution-style slaying of two Brooklyn cops this weekend has the city on edge and Mayor Bill de Blasio on the defensive. But the uproar over the first targeted cop-killing in recent New York City memory shouldn't be allowed to drown out the allegations that police officers in same borough have systematically planted weapons and manufactured charges against innocent civilians. In fact, this alleged practice could have major implications for the lingering mystery surrounding the shooting death of a black teenager at the hands of plainclothes cops in 2013.
On December 12, the New York Times detailed a series of questionable weapons discoveries by plainclothes officers in the 67th Precinct, based in Flatbush, Brooklyn. In all three cases examined by the Times, officers claimed that they had been tipped anonymously that the defendants were in possession of illegal firearms. But no fingerprints linking the weapons to the suspects were ever recovered. The guns simply turned up, as if out of thin air, handily wrapped in a plastic bag or handkerchief.
The police haven't been able to produce any of the informants they claimed provided them the initial tips that led to the arrests, either, leading attorneys with the Brooklyn Defender Services—who uncovered the shady series of weapons discoveries—to speculate that they don't exist. The lawyers are also suggesting cops could have been collecting the $1,000 dollar reward that comes with tips about illegal guns for themselves.
It is unclear where the weapons were coming from but, if the allegations raised in the Times are true, someone or multiple people at the 67th Precinct is in a position to produce a gun on demand. Could that have been the case after Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old of Guyanese descent, was fatally shot by plainclothes officers on March 9 of last year in the same precinct?
The Brooklyn Defender Services uncovered the symptoms of widespread evidence-tampering, the Times reported, and the Legal Aid Society—which provides pro bono representation to New Yorkers who cannot afford an attorney—are reviewing their backlogs of clients given fishy possession charges. A source familiar with the inquiry, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the allegations, told me that it is a "ripe time" to look into cases in which guns mysteriously turned up in East Flatbush.
"Who the fuck knows where the guns are coming from," the source said. "All you need is one officer whose working inventory one day to allow for this fake evidence to get out there."
The alleged plantings took place in 2013, roughly the same time period during which officers in the 67th Precinct produced the Rohm .38 that was supposedly found on Gray. As in the cases the Times examined, no fingerprints were produced tying Gray to the weapon and witness accounts diverge significantly from the stories of officers involved—though in Gray's case, there was no anonymous informant relied upon to produce the weapon.
Gray's death set off violent protests locally in East Flatbush that—together with the case of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager shot and killed by a vigilante in Florida—served as something of a precursor to what is now a national anti-police violence movement.
Outrage over the deaths of unarmed black civilians and what critics charge are systemically racist policing practices by the NYPD and other departments across the country reached their zenith earlier this month, as thousands took part in marches in New York, DC, and other cities. The protests have been fueled in part by a Staten Island grand jury's decision on December 3 to clear Officer Daniel Pantaleo of charges in the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African-American father of six he was videotaped placing in a chokehold in July. Of course, the NYPD has killed a slew of other unarmed minorities in recent years without facing criminal indictments.
Garner's death continues to make headlines, but when prosecutors with Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson's office decided this July not to bring Gray's killers, Sergeant Mourad Mourad and Officer Jovaniel Cordova, before a grand jury, the case fell by the wayside. Still, witnesses describe it as a homicide with little more provocation than Garner's.
The Brooklyn district attorney's office refused a request to provide VICE with the results of their investigation into Gray's killing, but Kenneth Montgomery, a former prosecutor with that office who is representing Gray's family in a civil trial, told me he will probably obtain it through a discovery motion in civil court.
When I asked the DA's office if the allegations of systemic weapons planting taking place at the 67th Precinct had prompted it to take another look at Gray's case and other instances where weapons were questionably recovered, a spokesperson referred me to comments the NYPD made to the Times—that their internal investigations unit was looking into the matter. The DA's office declined to indicate whether it would be reopening Gray's file.
After spending about a year looking into Gray's death as part of an ongoing documentary project , Defended in the Streets, the question of the .38 has remained a mystery to myself and others. No crime scene photo of the gun—a weapon that, according to Gun Digest, has not been manufactured in the United States since 1986—was ever released.
"We've never thought Kimani had a gun," Montgomery told me Friday.
Gray's mother, Carol Gray, remains incredulous at the idea that her son would ever point a weapon at a police officer.
"That's not Kimani," she said. "He was never a crazy person like that, to do something so insane. He had a lot to live for. He had a lot of goals. He had a future to go through."
According to the NYPD, 11 bullets were fired. Seven were later recovered from Gray's body, with three having entered through his back. By the department's account, Mourad and Cordova approached Gray after they saw him adjusting his waistband, and the teenager allegedly pointed the .38 at them when he was confronted. Witnesses say he had nothing in his hands.
"He was running for his life, telling the cops 'stop,'" Camille Johnson told reporters with local TV station PIX 11 following the shooting. "They really are, seriously, walking around, shooting little kids."
In an interview, Tishana King—who has spoken with the press in the past about what she saw that night—recalled that, after the shooting, one of the officers threw a tantrum. "He was like, 'Oh my God, oh my God!'" she said. "He looked really distressed and then his partner came over, put his hand around his shoulder, and said, 'Calm down, calm down.' And then said something into his ear."
In Tishana's version of events, it's this cop, the one doing the shooting, that takes charge from here on out. "He had his gun pointin' up at the windows while my head was out. He said, 'Put your fucking head back in the window before I fucking shoot you.'"
Tishana later shot video of the crime scene from her window overlooking the block where it took place using her cellphone. Filmed about five minutes after the bullets were fired, it indicates that police arriving in droves to the scene were looking for something. The video shows multiple officers scouring the ground near Gray with their flashlights. At no point do the officers appear to be offering him any form of medical assistance. What were they after? (King has provided this video, the existence of which has not previously been reported, to the complainants in the civil trial.)
Montgomery, the lawyer, thinks they were looking for the gun. "What else could they be doing milling about while a child lay dying on the ground?" he wonders.
The only publically available photo of the .38 was taken while the gun appeared to be in a box, not at the crime scene. Finding out exactly where that gun came from could break the case wide open. The 67th Precinct's alleged fondness for gun-planting lends at least some additional credence to the long-held belief by Gray's supporters that he was unarmed the night he died.
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