December 2, 2014

Lynch: Don’t Prejudge Tragic Project Shooting

Accidental Gun Discharge?


PATRICK J. LYNCH: Conditions played a role.  

At a time when crime has dropped to historic lows, the NYPD is facing a blizzard of criticism over another racially-tinged death,

A probationary Housing Police Officer, Peter Liang, was performing a “vertical patrol” at the crime-plagued Louis Pink Houses with another recent Police Academy graduate Nov. 20 when his gun went off in a dark stairwell, killing a black man, Akai Gurley, 28, as he walked down the stairs with his girlfriend.

‘Unfortunate Accident’

Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said that the shooting was “an unfortunate accident” and that Mr. Gurley was “a total innocent.”

It was not immediately clear what happened in the stairwell. According to one unofficial account, Mr. Liang, who had less than 18 months on the job, had his gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, opened the door with his gun hand and inadvertently pulled the trigger.

Some critics said they didn’t believe the shooting was an accident. Others theorized that the gun went off because Mr. Liang had disobeyed an NYPD rule that officers should not have a finger on the trigger until ready to fire.

Some asked why Mr. Liang had drawn his gun in the absence of a specific threat; NYPD policy is silent on whether he should have done so on a vertical patrol. And there were questions about whether either inexperience or fear led to the shooting.

‘Among Most-Dangerous’

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, called for caution, saying, “The Pink Houses are among the most dangerous projects in the city and their stairwells are the most dangerous places in the projects. Dimly-lit stairways and dilapidated conditions create fertile ground for violent crime, while the constant presence of illegal firearms creates a dangerous and highly volatile environment for police officers and residents alike. Only time and a thorough investigation will tell us what transpired in this case.”

A day later he issued a longer statement aimed at critics of the police. “There are those who question the tactics and procedures following a terrible tragedy like this so they can learn from the facts, try and improve from it and to prevent it from happening again,” he said. “And then there are those who simply want to capitalize on the tragedy for their own political gain who pretend to be friends of the community but do nothing constructive to help.

“Police officers are put into crime-ridden areas out of a deep respect for all of the good people who suffer the repression of thugs and criminals. Police don’t make these places dangerous; criminals who have no respect for the law or the rights of good, honest people do. And while we police officers risk our lives in these dark, poorly-managed and -maintained buildings, we have every right to take precautions to protect ourselves from danger because we too want to go home to our families.

‘Prayers for His Family’

“We are deeply saddened at the loss of Mr. Gurley in this tragic accident and we send our thoughts and prayers to his family. We also feel deeply for the police officer who will have to live with the results of this terrible accident for the rest of his life. It is sad that we have to send armed police officers into these buildings, but until those who make their careers criticizing police devote themselves to assisting police in the removal of the criminal element who terrorize public housing, we will have to continue to do so.”

The debate over the shooting overshadowed some good news for the NYPD: that the crime rate for August, September and October was the lowest since 1994, when Compstat began tracking statistics.

“The reality of this city is that the city is getting safer, and it’s getting safer because the cops are focusing on what they do and by and large are not paying attention to the left or to the right, which is appropriate,” Mr. Bratton said of the crime figures.

The Gurley case was overwhelmed in turn by news Nov. 25 that a grand jury had decided not to indict a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., for shooting an unarmed black youth he said was attacking him.

DA: ‘Deeply Troubling’

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson issued a statement the day after the shooting saying, “As we continue to gather the facts, the fatal shooting of this unarmed man is deeply troubling and warrants an immediate, fair and thorough investigation. Many questions must be answered, including whether, as reported, the lights in the hallway were out for a number of days, and how this tragedy actually occurred.”

Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron, a former City Councilman known for incendiary rhetoric, said, “This was not an accident. It was a crime.” He said Mr. Liang “should be indicted and brought before a court and I believe convicted and thrown under the jail for taking the life of an innocent young man.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who is also involved in the Missouri case and the death of another black man, Eric Garner, after a struggle with NYPD officers on Staten Island, voiced a similar question: “They’re saying it was an accident. We’re saying, ‘How do we know until there is a thorough investigation?’’’

But he noted that the darkened condition of the stairwell may have been a factor in the shooting. Officers “don’t know if they’re facing a cop or a robber when they’re coming down the stairs,” he said.

Williams: ‘Negligence’

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who led the ultimately successful fight to pass legislation aimed at curbing aggressive stop-and-frisks, said on WABC Radio, “At some point we have to hold these officers criminally liable for killing unarmed people.” He said the fact that Mr. Liang was patrolling with his gun drawn was “I believe some sort of criminal negligence.”

He and other critics were concerned that two rookies should not have been patrolling together in a high-crime area such as the Pink Houses. Mr. Bratton had restructured Operation Impact, which sent recent Police Academy graduates on saturation patrols in such areas, so as to pair rookies with more-experienced officers, but NYPD officials said staffing issues have slowed the reassignments.