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Some NYPD Officer-Involved Shooting Narratives Just Don't Fly

Three police shootings in one weekend give occasion to question early accounts from authorities.

by Natasha Lennard
May 19 2014, 7:10pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This past weekend in New York was marked by three police-involved shootings — two of which were fatal, and one of which has already drawn objections from witnesses regarding the official NYPD narratives.

The phrase "police-involved shooting" is a careful construction, which, like the criminal justice system more broadly, tends to point blame away from cops. It is code for "the cops shot someone."

In recent days, in areas spanning two New York boroughs, the cops shot three people. In one incident, an armed drug store robber was gunned down after getting stuck in traffic while making a getaway from a pharmacy on the Upper East Side. On Sunday, in Flatbush, police shot dead a man who was wielding a pair of scissors; he had stabbed a woman in the shoulder during a violent domestic dispute.

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Finally, in East Harlem — in the most contested narrative of the three — police shot and wounded a 23-year-old who reportedly pulled a weapon on them. Witnesses have challenged official claims that the suspect (currently in critical condition) was armed.

There's no connection beyond the three shootings, beyond temporal proximity and NYPD guns firings bullets into human flesh.

But a series of police shootings alone gives occasion to address the NYPD's use of lethal force.

The same was true when in one week in early 2012, cops shot and killed three black young men in three separate incidents (including unarmed teen Ramarley Graham). Then, too, police shootings drew increased attention and censure. Seemingly, it takes a series to garner attention in our glutted news machine.

While firing a gun at a suspect armed only with scissors raises questions about the necessity of lethal force in such a case, the Flatbush shooting was not even the most controversial of the weekend. The East Harlem incident, in which 23-year-old Michael Schultz was critically wounded, has once again drawn scrutiny to the veracity of police narratives.

Police say that Schultz first ran from two officers, before turning and pulling his .22 caliber RG revolver on his pursuers. But a number of eye witnesses have stepped forward to challenge the cops' story, stating that Schultz turned and put his arms up, no gun in hand.

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According to video testimony from witnesses, recorded by community organizers CopWatch, two NYPD officers "aggressively" approached a group of residents standing outside the Washington Houses projects, Schultz ran with the group, before turning with his hands in the air.

A resident who identifies himself only as "Joe" tells CopWatch that Schultz was shot, then struck by an officer's baton. He said the cops then kicked the 23-year-old in the head when he was already on the ground and wounded.

Whether or not Schultz pulled his weapon on the officers is a matter for continued investigation.

Suffice to say here that the NYPD has a history of falsified narratives — especially relating to young black shooting victims and whether they were or were not armed.

Recall that in the 2012 shooting of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, initial police reports claimed he was armed, a claim later disproved (the teen was chased by cops into his grandmother's Bronx home and gunned down in a bathroom).

Eyewitnesses of the March 2013 police shooting of Brooklyn 16-year-old Kimani Gray said they were "certain" that the teen was unarmed, countering police reports.

Remember, too, the 2012 shooting outside the Empire State Building: A gunman shot dead one victim. Trigger happy cops then opened fire, injuring nine bystanders.

Early reports suggested a mass shooting and failed to stress that all bystander injuries came from police bullets. One week before that incident, police again used multiple rounds in crowded Times Square to shoot dead one mentally ill man wielding a knife.

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While even the officer responsible for killing Graham was found 'not guilty' of manslaughter, none of the above NYPD false narratives held up against countering witness statements.

These recent examples alone are enough to urge caution when reading and recounting NYPD narratives about "police-involved" shootings.

It is especially incumbent on the media to proceed with skepticism in these incidents. Police impunity begets police recklessness; recent history gives us too much evidence to take New York cops at their word.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Wikimedia Commons