The Chief
February 6, 2004

EDITORIAL

Kelly’s Candor

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s swift pronouncement that there appeared to be no justification for the Jan. 24 shooting of an unarmed teenager by a Housing Bureau cop in a Brooklyn building was countered with charges by some cops and Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch that he had prejudged the case and wasn’t backing the officers he commands.

In essence, they are accusing Mr. Kelly of hanging Police Officer Richard Neri out to dry to head off any racial unrest that might have resulted from a shooting by a white cop of a black teen who by all accounts was a productive citizen. Some cops who were interviewed last week said that Mr. Kelly had failed to “put himself in our shoes” so that he would understand the stress involved in patrolling a housing project that has had problems with violence during the past year.

But uncomfortable as the Police Commissioner’s statement may have made some of the cops and their union, Mr. Kelly’s own background as a veteran patrolmen makes him uniquely qualified to pass judgment on the incident based on the preliminary accounts he had received. Clearly he concluded that being startled by Timothy Stansbury Jr., appearing at the doorway to the roof when Mr. Neri’s partner opened it did not excuse the shooting.

Mr. Kelly early last year was definitive in heading off criticism of three police shootings of civilians in a short period that began New Year’s Eve by pronouncing them all justifiable based on the early reports he had received. He did so after two black elected officials used inflammatory language to criticize the shootings.

We said at the time that those who judge such incidents based on the facts rather than on which side they are expected to fall will always have greater credibility than those who view cases through an us vs. them prism. In this instance, Mr. Kelly deemed it important to step forward and question Officer Neri’s action.

It is hard to imagine that he did so without consulting Mayor Bloomberg, who subsequently backed Mr. Kelly’s remarks.

Mr. Lynch has argued that Mr. Kelly should have at least waited until the investigation was concluded before making his statement. A PBA lawyer has said the Commissioner’s remarks could influence a grand jury considering criminal charges against Officer Neri, and that Mr. Kelly has tainted any departmental hearing the officer faces if he is not convicted criminally.

Mr. Kelly and the Mayor clearly made a determination that keeping the city calm took precedence over sparing Mr. Neri instant criticism. Those cops who think he is being disloyal to them perhaps have forgotten the tensions that existed when Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his Police Commissioners refused to acknowledge that officers’ actions in fatal shootings were questionable. It created a racial climate so bad five years ago that Detectives’ Endowment Association President Tom Scotto termed it “a toxic atmosphere.”

It undoubtedly galled some cops, as well as the PBA, to hear City Councilman Charles Barron call the case another example of the police shooting young black men “like animals.” The hypocrisy behind the hyperhole in Mr. Barron’s comment was stunning, since for the past couple of years he has been urging the parole of two men who set up a pair of cops and assassinated them over 30 years ago. His rational is that even if they led those cops to slaughter with a false report of a crime, the killers have been punished enough.

In this case, it is almost certain that Officer Neri’s shooting of Mr. Stansbury was accidental. Jurors will have to sort out whether there is criminal liability in the officer’s reflexive shot when he was surprised by the sight of the young man.

Officer Neri has 11 years on the job and had never fired his gun on patrol before. This suggests he is not trigger-happy, but it also indicates that he is too experienced an officer to excuse what he did from a departmental – as opposed to a criminal – standpoint.

Commissioner Kelly and the Mayor decided that under the circumstances, the first priority was to assure residents that this kind of shooting was unacceptable. Many cops may not be happy about that stance. But there is a message aimed at them as well that needs to be understood: that in keeping themselves safe, they must nonetheless use the utmost caution in handling and discharging their weapons.