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A Cop Convicted of Killing an Unarmed Black Man Isn’t Going to Prison

Peter Liang, who became notorious as a rookie cop who accidentally shot and killed a man two years ago, got probation and community service despite protests from Black Lives Matter activists.
April 20, 2016, 4:00amUpdated on April 20, 2016, 4:30pm

Former NYPD Officer Peter Liang reads a prepared statement at his sentencing Tuesday in Brooklyn, New York. (Jesse Ward/The Daily News via AP, Pool)

Inside the overflow section at Brooklyn Criminal Court on Tuesday, a rapt audience watched the live broadcast of the courtroom next door and waited, anxiously, for the news. When Judge Danny Chun read it aloud, one woman shrieked, tears streaming from her face. "This is making me sick," she said, storming out.

Former New York Police Department Officer Peter Liang had just been sentenced to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service for the accidental shooting death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley in November 2014. After being found guilty in February on second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct charges, the judge reduced the crime at the hearing to criminally negligent homicide—which, he said, was a Class E felony, and therefore carried a less severe sentence.

Liang's sentencing serves as the culmination of a months-long legal battle, where the city was offered a rare glimpse of what a police indictment, and trial, might look like. And since he was an Asian American officer who killed an unarmed black man, the case pitted two of the city's ethnic factions against each other.

An activist outside Peter Liang's sentencing Tuesday. Photo by Jason Bergman

Liang, the judge decided Tuesday, did not enter the Pink Houses project in East New York, Brooklyn, that night with the intent to kill Gurley. And when his bullet ricocheted and hit the man by accident, the shot wasn't intentionally directed at him. Instead, the judge said, the tragedy stemmed from Liang's nerves getting the best of him in a dark staircase while the officer conducted what's known as a "vertical patrol" where cops comb each floor of a building. At the time, Gurley was coming down the stairs with his friend, Melissa Butler, after leaving her apartment.

As his fate was decided, Liang sat silently, a blank stare on his face. Earlier, he delivered an emotional plea that his lawyers reiterated in their final remarks—that he was the hardworking son of Chinese immigrants and an exemplary police officer with no previous record. "Judge, Peter Liang didn't dream of being villainized as a bad cop," Peter Shechtman, his defense attorney, said.

"I apologize to Melissa Butler and Akai Gurley's family," the since-fired cop told the court, reading from a script. "I love my wife and family for supporting me. I want them to be proud of me." A victim statement of impact was also read for Kim Ballinger, the mother of Gurley's child and reportedly his fiancée, and Melissa Butler, who told the court she "was still suffering" from Gurley's death.

After announcing the sentence, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis told Judge Chun that the Brooklyn DA's office—which had previously (and controversially) recommended no jail time for Liang—would appeal his decision to modify, or reduce, the crime.

But to those who were there in support of Gurley, the damage was already done.

"Eight hundred hours of community service?" Daniel Sanchez, a Black Lives Matter demonstrator, yelled outside of the courthouse. "That's like the charges you get for tagging up a wall!"

State Assemblyman Charles Barron comforts family and friends of Akai Gurley after Peter Liang's sentencing Tuesday in Brooklyn. Photo by Jason Bergman

In the crowds that gathered outside court, there was a resounding sense that the ultimate fate of Peter Liang had long before been determined. That it was foolish to think that a police officer would ever see the inside of a prison cell for the death of an innocent, unarmed black man.

"From Anthony Baez to Ramarley Graham," Sanchez continued, ticking off the names of men of color killed by the NYPD. "And now, Akai Gurley."

The police union—a representative of which Liang reportedly texted after he shot Gurley, but before he radioed for help—naturally took the side of the defendant, arguing that Liang's guilty verdict would only hinder cops on patrol in New York City's dangerous neighborhoods. And Black Lives Matter activists, still reeling from the decision to not indict the officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner over a year ago, trumpeted it as a possible victory.

A lively outpouring of Asian Americans took to the streets during the course of the trial, too, arguing that Liang was unjustly used as a scapegoat, since it seemed unlikely that a white officer would be brought to trial. (This is something I heard from current and former police officers as well.)

Photo by Jason Bergman

Outside the court, those forces came into direct contact with each other, as a large contingent of Chinese Americans protested just across the street from the Black Lives Matter crowd, all of whom were surrounded by the very cops they both criticized. Some tense remarks were exchanged, perhaps most egregiously when a cop was seen snickering.

"You think this is a joke?" one demonstrator asked the officer, angrily, from behind a barricade. "If someone dies in your family, I'll come and laugh at your funeral."

Down the block, the Gurley family left the court, visibly distraught by the news. After protesters forcefully held back eager journalists—in one case, even pushing a radio reporter to the ground—Gurley's aunt, Hertencia Petersen, decided to share some words.

"This right here is not to end," she told reporters. "We're gonna continue to fight until we get justice. Akai Gurley's life matters."

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