January 27, 2004


The Commissioner’s Plain Speaking

The hearts of all New Yorkers go out to the family of Timothy Stansbury, Jr., the teenager shot to death on the roof of the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant last weekend. By all accounts, Stansbury was the victim of a fatal mistake, in which a startled police officer bumped into Stansbury and fired a shot at close range at the top of a dark building stairwell. The 19-yearold staggered down five flights to the lobby, collapsed, and died. Stansbury, who worked at a McDonald’s restaurant in his neighborhood, came from a communityminded family. His mother was a crossing guard in the 79th precinct, and his grandmother volunteered at the precinct’s family day.

Eleven hours later, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued this plain, painful statement: “At this point, based on the facts we have gathered,there appears to be no justification for this shooting.” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch lost little time in condemning Commissioner Kelly for allegedly making a rush to judgment. On a public Web site where NYPD officers sound off, more than 100 postings castigated Mr. Kelly. One, by a cop, warned his fellow officers: “You have never been closer to financial ruin or jail as you are when performing the duties of a police officer in NYC. One mistake or controversial incident and you are fed to the dogs.”

Such statements are inaccurate, and it would be a shame were Commissioner Kelly to be left out alone on this. As the city’s chief law enforcement officer, his first duty is to the public safety. The decision to lay the department’s cards on the table early and openly may have been an attempt to prevent a hot situation on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant from becoming a civil disturbance. Bitter experience teaches that few things can drive an explosive wedge between communities and their police faster than a stonewalling of official information in a situation of this kind. But the commissioner’s statement, based as it was on preliminary facts, also has the benefit of being true.

The welcome tone from the city’s top policeman was not met in kind by many selfstyled community activists, who immediatley condemned all officers or called for racially seperate policing for communities of different color. The mayor and police commissioner’s obvious efforts deserve to be met in kind, and even, or especially, in time of crisis and pain, the racial arsonists who once descended on every tragedy in our city deserve to be condemned and ostracized by all New Yorkers.

More facts may turn up. Officer Richard Neri, who fired the fatal bullet, has yet to make an official statement about the circumstances of the incident. And a re-evaluation of police procedures has been promised; the policy of having officers conduct intra-building vertical patrols with their guns drawn clearly requires a second look. But if it’s the early estimation of Commissioner Kelly and the NYPD that the killing of Stansbury was unjustified, the department was duty-bound to communicate this fact truthfully with the public, and we are more than prepared to grant Mr. Kelly the benefit of the doubt.

Whether it was the right move for the district attorney in Kings County, Charles Hynes, to move so quickly to convene a grand jury to investigate whether criminal charges against the officer are warranted, we have our doubts. We expect, and hope, that the grand jury will find no criminal conduct took place that fateful night on the rooftop. Certainly Officer Neri enjoys the legal presumption of innocence, as the Brooklyn prosecutor conducts its probe of what seems to be a tragic error in judgment.