January 26, 2004

Policing in Black & White

By Daryl Kahn Staff Writer With reporting by staff writers Lindsay Faber, Glenn Thrush and Leonard Levitt

An outcry over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Brooklyn teen intensified Sunday, with some critics suggesting the victim might not have been killed if he were white, and others demanding broad changes in tactics and training.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly drew sharp criticism, at the same time, from the president of the police officers union for having said Saturday that the officer's firing upon Timothy Stansbury Jr., 19, early that morning appeared to be unjustified.

"It's absolutely wrong for Commissioner Kelly to have jumped to a conclusion when he knows the police officer involved has not had the opportunity to speak with the district attorney's office," said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "This investigation should be allowed to move forward without being tainted by politics or comments by Commissioner Kelly or others."

A Brooklyn grand jury this week will consider charges, including murder, against the veteran police officer, Richard Neri, who fatally shot Stansbury once in the chest at the top of a stairwell in the Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, law-enforcement officials said.

Stansbury was pushing open a metal door to the roof of the Armstrong Houses about 1:30 a.m. Neri, who had his gun drawn, was pulling the door from the other side as part of a routine stairwell and rooftop patrol he was conducting with his partner. Both officers are white.

The department's chief spokesman said Kelly would convene a special panel of borough-level commanders Monday to review procedures and other issues arising from the killing.

Also Monday, witnesses to the shooting were scheduled to speak to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes for the first time.

Stansbury's family remained distraught and outraged, and their loved one's death served as an emotional touchstone for a march Sunday by scores of friends and neighbors, who decried the shooting, demanded criminal charges against Neri and maintained that tensions with police officers have been growing.

"My heart hurts," a grief-stricken Irene Clayburne, Stansbury's grandmother, said as weeping friends and relatives streamed into her apartment to comfort one another.

"Don't tell me this isn't a black-white thing," said Kory Reese, 19, who had found Stansbury bleeding from the mouth and gasping for air in a first-floor stairwell.

Stansbury worked at a fast-food restaurant. He had attended Thomas Jefferson High School and earned a diploma.

"He did everything right all his life," said a friend, Sean Clayton, 24. "He got his GED, he got a job at McDonald's, he had a girlfriend. He was a typical teenager. And he didn't deserve to die."

In an interview with KISS-FM Sunday morning, Kelly said his department relies on an officer's judgment on when to draw his or her gun while on patrol.

"You can't micromanage or direct every situation where an officer should or should not have their weapons out," Kelly said. "It is a personal judgment that has to be made in many, many cases."

Among those blasting the department Sunday was Councilman Charles Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat acting as an adviser for the Stansbury family.

"He don't want to micromanage, so he'd rather have us shot down like dogs, like animals," Barron said. "To me, that's an imbecilic response that makes no sense. You have to do things to prevent death. You are paid to protect us, not to kill us."

James O'Keefe, former head of training at the police academy, said he admired Kelly for speaking promptly about the shooting. But, he added, the shooting should not change police policy. He said the officer could have been worried about a pit bull that residents sometimes let loose on the rooftops, about drug dealers or a suspicious sound he heard.

"There's a lot of good reasons that go into that officer's decision to draw his gun," he said. "But with all the wonderful training that goes on, you still have the human reaction -- people responding to fear."

Neri, a 12-year veteran with no history of excessive force, remained on modified duty, his gun and shield taken away. He could not be reached for comment. His partner, who according to police sources had his gun drawn but did not fire, was on desk duty.

Outside the housing complex where Stansbury was shot, Lt. Eric Adams, head of the officers' group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, criticized the police for failing to address a culture where the "black male is perceived to be the ideal criminal."

Adams said Neri should not have had his gun out unless he was responding to a specific call for danger.

"There is a difference between having your gun unlocked and holstered and out. If you cannot police a building without your gun being out, this is not the profession you should be in," he said.