January 28, 2004

Death at Close Range

Cop's Fate May Hinge On Distance From Victim

By Leonard Levitt, Daryl Khan and Rocco Parascandola STAFF WRITERS

As Brooklyn prosecutors get ready to present evidence to a grand jury, the fate of a police officer who shot dead an unarmed teenager could hinge on how close the victim was to the officer at the time, sources familiar with the probe said yesterday.

The issue is likely to be a focal point when prosecutors present the politically and racially charged case to the grand jury, possibly as soon as today.

Richard Neri, a 12-year veteran of the Housing Bureau with a clean disciplinary record and no previous shootings, fatally shot Timothy Stansbury Jr., 19, in a seconds-long encounter early Saturday. Neri and his partner, Officer Jason Hallik, were assigned to Police Service Area No. 3, which, according to one police source, had come under scrutiny recently because of several instances in which officers there had fired their guns.

In October, when a pit bull was fatally shot atop the same building where Stansbury was killed, housing police supervisors were "read the riot act," according to one police source.

Early Saturday, Neri and Hallik were conducting ground-to-roof patrols at the Louis Armstrong Houses, a development in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

At the same time, Stansbury, Terrence Fisher and Shawn Rhames were heading up the stairs of 385 Lexington Ave. Stansbury and his friends were heading to the roof and planned to walk across to an adjacent building to attend a birthday party.

Stansbury and Hallik are believed to have reached the door at about the same time.

Neri, who had his gun out and whose role was to look inside to check for criminal activity, may have been startled by Stansbury, sources said. He fired once, striking Stansbury in the chest.

Internal Affairs investigators have located a man who was among many who gathered outside the building after the shooting. The man has told investigators that Stansbury was shot as he was pushing the door open, presumably as Hallik opened it, sources said. The man's credibility is unclear, sources say, in part because he is not an eyewitness. It was not clear if what he heard came from Fisher and Rhames or from others.

Fisher and Rhames did not talk to police investigators but have told Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes' office that Stansbury was not in the doorway but 3 to 4 feet back. The difference, however small, could prove critical for Neri, sources familiar with the case and with police tactics say.

"If a guy's real close to you, he can get your gun," one source said.

A second source said that, in any police shooting, a key element is determining how much time the officer had to size up what was happening.

"When a person is so abruptly on you, you don't have time to think," the source said. "It's like a reflective action - you squeeze the trigger in anticipation of being shot. If he's a little further back, it presents a problem for the officer. What did he do to assess the situation?"

In other developments, Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, met with Hynes because of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's assessment that the shooting appeared unjustified.

"Only the officer knows if it was an accident or he perceived a danger," Lynch said before the meeting.

Neri's lawyer, Stu London, said Neri is "feeling a lot better" since Lynch spoke out on his behalf. Neri, London said, may testify before the grand jury.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday defended the decision to announce that the shooting appeared unjustified, saying he and Kelly met and decided it was the best thing to do.

"This is a tragedy. A 19-year-old boy is dead today, and our prayers are with him and with his family," he said.

The wake and funeral for Stansbury, a McDonald's employee who received his general equivalency diploma, will be held Friday.