New York Daily News

December 8, 2014 | 2:30 am


 

EXCLUSIVE: In 179 fatalities involving on-duty NYPD cops in 15 years, only 3 cases led to indictments — and just 1 conviction

 

A Daily News analysis of NYPD-involved deaths starts with the 1999 slaying of unarmed Amadou Diallo in a hail of bullets in the Bronx and ends with last month’s shooting death of Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn stairwell. Where race was known, 86% were black or Hispanic.

BY SARAH RYLEY, NOLAN HICKS, THOMAS TRACY, JOHN MARZULLI, DAREH GREGORIAN

A Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict white NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner — a black father of six — stunned large swaths of the city and added fuel to a nationwide surge of protests over police killings.

But history shows the odds were always in Pantaleo’s favor.

A Daily News investigation found that at least 179 people were killed by on-duty NYPD officers over the past 15 years. Just three of the deaths have led to an indictment in state court. In another case, a judge threw out the indictment on technical grounds and it was not reinstated.

Only one officer who killed someone while on duty has been convicted, but he was not sentenced to jail time.

The analysis of the police-involved deaths begins with the 1999 slaying of unarmed Amadou Diallo in a hail of bullets and ends with last month’s shooting death of Akai Gurley, who police say was hit by a ricocheting bullet fired by a rookie cop in a darkened housing project stairwell in Brooklyn. Gurley was also unarmed.

The News found that since 1999:

  • Roughly 27% of people killed by cops were unarmed.
  • Where race was known, 86% were black or Hispanic.
  • Twenty-one people were killed — three of them by off-duty cops — in 2012, the highest during the 15-year span.

Former NYPD Officer Bryan Conroy was convicted in 2005 of criminally negligent homicide for gunning down West African immigrant Ousmane Zongo, 43, during a counterfeit goods raid at a Chelsea warehouse two years earlier.

Zongo — a married father of two who was never implicated in the counterfeit goods investigation — worked at the warehouse and happened upon Conroy, who was disguised as a postal worker when he drew his weapon. Conroy shot Zongo four times.

Conroy’s first trial ended in a hung jury. A judge convicted him in a second trial and sentenced him to five years of probation and 500 hours of community service.

“In most of those cases it would be the local district attorney who’s bringing up the charges, if any,” said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Prison Reform Organizing Project.

“There’s an inherent conflict of interest. . . . The police and DA work very closely together, and so they need each other to carry out their jobs,” said Gangi, adding he’s encouraged by the mainstream political support from Gov. Cuomo to state Assembly members to create a special prosecutor who would handle police-involved deaths.

The News’ analysis was based on information compiled by organizations such as the Prison Reform Organizing Project and the Stolen Lives Project, the NYPD’s annual firearms discharge reports, press reports, and court documents. The News only included deaths that involved an active member of the force and were a direct result of the officer’s actions. So, cases where individuals died from swallowing drugs during an arrest or hitting a tree during a car chase, for example, were not included.

The News found 222 deaths total during the 15-year span — 43 of which involved off-duty officers, some of whom bravely stepped in when they saw trouble, others who were embroiled in personal disputes or driving drunk. The News was only able to identify 10 convictions covering 14 of those off-duty deaths, and one case that is ongoing.

Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, pointed out that during the same time period, nearly 80 officers have been killed in the line of duty.

“When there is a life-or-death situation on the street, be it an armed robbery, a homicidal maniac on the street or someone driving a vehicle in a dangerous and potentially deadly way, it is New York City police officers who step in and take the risk away from the public and put it on themselves,” Lynch said in a statement. “Our work has saved tens of thousands of lives by assuming the risk and standing between New Yorkers and life-threatening danger.”

The NYPD declined to comment for this article or provide its own internal statistics on officer-involved deaths, and the information has not been submitted to the FBI since 2006.

Commissioner Bill Bratton defended his department in a recent interview on “Good Day New York,” saying, “We have some of the lowest number of incidents of taking lives in this country.”

Some of the deaths reviewed by The News involved fierce firefights and death-defying heroism by New York’s Finest — like when off-duty Officer Ivan Marcano, on a night out with his girlfriend, took down an armed robber as he clutched his own gunshot wound to the chest. Marcano was later honored by President Obama.

Officer Richard Burt gunned down assassin Othneil Askew in 2003 after Askew murdered Councilman James Davis in City Hall. Four rookie cops took down hatchet-wielding madman Zale Thompson in Jamaica, Queens, in October.

But in more than a quarter of the on-duty fatalities the victim was unarmed — some were cases of mistaken identity or innocent bystanders. Others like Garner were implicated in low-level crimes (he was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes).

And roughly 20% involved people who were emotionally disturbed, such as Iman Morales, who in 2008 was found naked and waving a fluorescent bulb on the second-floor ledge of a building on Tompkins Ave. in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Cops tried to subdue him with a Taser, and Morales fell headfirst onto the concrete below and died.

Lt. Michael Pigott, who ordered the use of the Taser, took his own life eight days later.

“I have never in 30 years met any police officers who, as he drove into work, said, ‘Today I am going to get into a shooting, kill someone, become a headline and lose my job and my pension,’ ” said Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association.

Mullins said many people don’t realize the lifetime impact a death has on officers.

“Their personality changes. . . . They become quiet. They go about their business, but they’re not the same people they used to be.”

Diallo, an African immigrant, was standing in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building when four white anti-crime cops mistook him for a rape suspect. They ordered him to show his hands; Diallo tried to show them his wallet. The officers mistook it for a gun, and 41 bullets later, the 22-year-old was dead.

The officers were acquitted of murder charges a year later — setting off a sea of protests, new police training procedures and numerous studies of how racial bias influences snap decisions on whether to shoot.

But the number of on-duty police killings has not gone down. The News tallied 11 in 1999, the year Diallo was killed, and 12 this year. In 2012, there were 18, the highest during the 15-year span.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” said lawyer Norman Siegel, a longtime advocate of reforming the grand jury system.

The Garner case was a rare instance in which video clearly showed the chain of events leading up to a death. Garner protested what he perceived as harassment, saying, “I can’t breathe” 11 times as he was put into a chokehold and piled on by several officers.

The shocking video of the chokehold that led to Garner’s death on July 17 in Tompkinsville, S.I., was first published by NYDailyNews.com.

The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide caused by the chokehold. Obesity was a contributing factor in the 43-year-old man’s death, the medical examiner found.

There have been other cases where unarmed civilians died after being choked or having their chests compressed by officers where there were no such videos — and no public outrage and no grand jury hearings.

James Young, a 49-year-old father of three, fell into a coma and later died after he was choked by a narcotics detective “for an extended period of time” until he started foaming at the mouth and lost consciousness, a lawsuit claims. The Brooklyn district attorney declined to prosecute the case, and the civil lawsuit was settled for $832,500 in June.

Siegel, who represented Young’s widow, said the Garner case demonstrates that even a damning video does not guarantee accountability.

“A video might have been helpful in James Young’s case, but the real problem is still the secret grand jury process and the lack of a special prosecutor,” Siegel said.

A mentally ill woman, Shereese Francis, 29, of Queens, died of heart failure in 2012 after being suffocated by four male officers who were called to get her in an ambulance because she hadn’t been taking her meds, another lawsuit claims.

After a 14-month investigation that included several home visits and interviews with family members who were present on the day of the death, the Queens DA declined to prosecute, according to court records. The family was awarded $1.1 million in a civil lawsuit in May.

The family’s lawyer said her death was ruled a homicide due to compression of the chest. She, like Garner, was obese, and the cops applied a chokehold on her for a short time as well, lawyer Steve Vaccarro said.

New York prosecutors, like their counterparts across the nation, have had difficulties scoring indictments against cops.

In Manhattan — where The News found 41 deaths involving on-duty cops since 1999 — the prosecutor who got the conviction in the Zongo case, former Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, had a policy to present all cases involving fatal shootings by cops to a grand jury. It’s a policy that’s being continued by his successor, Cyrus Vance Jr.

“I wanted people to have confidence in the integrity of law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” Morgenthau told The News. “If I would pick and choose the cases, people would lack confidence in the objectivity of the prosecutor.”

Some controversial cases in Brooklyn — where The News found 75 deaths involving on-duty officers — never made it to a grand jury, despite promises from former District Attorney Charles Hynes that they were under active investigation. Instead, those cases withered on the vine, preventing police from proceeding with departmental investigations and the victims’ families from proceeding with civil cases.

“I’m very upset my son’s case never reached a grand jury,” said Laverne Dobbinson, whose son Tamon Robinson was fatally struck by an NYPD cruiser in April 2012 as cops chased him for stealing rocks from the grounds of a housing project in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

“It was just swept under the rug,” she said.

A probe into the July 11, 2009, death of Army veteran Shem Walker dragged on for more than four years, as Hynes said he was weighing how to proceed.

Walker, a married 49-year-old Army vet, got into a scuffle with an undercover officer he’d tried to move from the stoop of his grandmother’s building in Fort Greene. Walker didn’t know the man was a cop observing a buy-and-bust operation nearby, and the altercation got physical. Police said Walker punched the undercover, then the undercover shot Walker three times.

It was Hynes’ successor, Kenneth Thompson, who finally decided not to submit the case to a grand jury earlier this year.

“There was absolutely no reason that I can fathom for keeping these cases open for so long,” said the Walker family’s lawyer, Scott Rynecki. “The fact that prior DA Hynes sat on these cases for so long left no choice for the new DA because so much time had passed. The families are entitled to closure.”

Hynes declined to comment.

Bronx DA Robert Johnson managed to score a manslaughter indictment against Officer Richard Haste for the shooting death of Ramarley Graham in 2012.

Haste said he’d followed Graham into his E. 229th St. home as part of a drug investigation, and opened fire on the 18-year-old when the teen reached for his waistband. No weapon was found.

But Johnson’s victory was short-lived. A judge tossed the indictment, finding prosecutors made a mistake in their presentation. He presented the case to a grand jury again, and said he was “surprised and shocked” when the grand jury voted not to indict.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown prosecuted three officers for manslaughter and reckless endangerment for the 2006 killing of Sean Bell — another death that sparked nationwide protests. Bell was leaving his bachelor party at a Jamaica strip club with two friends when cops unleashed a fusillade of 50 bullets at their gray Nissan Altima.

The feds are investigating the Graham and Garner cases for possible civil rights violations. But Siegel noted it’s been two decades since the feds last prosecuted a fatal police case in New York.

Anthony Baez, 29, was tossing a football around with his brothers in the Bronx when the ball hit a squad car in 1994. Officer Frank Livoti became enraged and squeezed the life out of Baez with a chokehold. A Bronx grand jury indicted him and he was acquitted by a judge of criminally negligent homicide.

Livoti was convicted in 1998 of federal civil rights violations and served nearly seven years in prison.

Siegel said the Garner case would be more difficult for the feds because Garner was a criminal suspect, albeit a very low-level one.

As for the shooting death of Gurley, who was laid to rest Saturday, sources told The News that Thompson will empanel a grand jury by the end of the month to consider possible charges against rookie cop Peter Liang.

Several state and local politicians, meanwhile, have called for a special prosecutor to handle all cases where people have been killed by police, believing local district attorneys can’t pursue them objectively because they work so closely with cops.