Wall Street Journal

Feb. 5, 2016 8:24 p.m. ET


Shootings Stir Concerns About ‘Vertical’ Patrols

Judge warns jurors in case of Akai Gurley shooting to be careful of news coverage

By JOSEPH DE AVILA and REBECCA DAVIS O’BRIEN

KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Officers keep watch at the Melrose Houses in the South Bronx after two police officers were shot during a vertical patrol Thursday.

A day after two police officers were shot while on patrol inside a stairwell of a Bronx public-housing complex, a state justice ordered jurors at the trial of an officer involved in a fatal shooting inside a Brooklyn public-housing stairwell to be careful of news coverage.

Before the jury arrived Friday morning, Brooklyn prosecutors in the trial of New York Police Department Officer Peter Liang, who is charged with manslaughter in the 2014 shooting death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, raised concerns about media coverage of Thursday night’s shooting. They also asked the judge to prohibit the defense from discussing the latest incident in the courtroom.

Both shootings occurred at a public-housing complex. Both took place inside a stairwell. Both involved officers on patrol.

In the Brooklyn case, Officer Liang fired his gun—his lawyers say by accident—and the bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck Mr. Gurley, who was unarmed.

On Thursday night in the Bronx, Officers Patrick Espeut and Diara Cruz came across an alleged crime in progress and were caught in a brief exchange of gunfire that injured both of them. The suspect later died from an apparent self-inflicted wound.

 THOMAS MACMILLAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Investigators on Friday enter the Bronx apartment building where two police officers were shot Thursday evening.

Both incidents underscore the challenges that officers face when conducting so-called vertical patrols of the stairwells and hallways of public-housing complexes.

Officer Liang’s attorneys have repeatedly cited the hazards of these patrols during his trial, pointing to a police guide that warns officers to be on guard for a “possible ambush.”

Vertical patrols in the past have come under criticism from civil-liberties advocates who have said the method raised many of the same concerns as the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program and often led to the baseless questioning and searching of residents.

Patrolling public-housing complexes is “inherently dangerous,” said Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Giacalone said the stairways in public-housing projects have been known gathering places for criminal activity. The NYPD began vertical patrols, where officers routinely sweep New York City Housing Authority stairwells and roofs with flashlights and service weapons drawn, to keep hallways and stairwells clear.

Officers on patrol face many hazards, including poor lighting, tight hallways, and nooks and crannies where people can hide, Mr. Giacalone said. Encounters with people in the hallways and stairways usually are uneventful but can quickly escalate into violent confrontations, especially if the police surprise a suspect or vice versa, he said.

Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, chairwoman of the council’s public-safety committee, said more steps need to be taken to protect officers on patrol in public-housing complexes.

“I think patrolling public housing is important,” said Ms. Gibson, a Democrat who represents a Bronx neighborhood near where the police officers were shot Thursday. Residents “want to see police officers, so that’s not even a question. But how can we allow them to patrol in a safe manner is always a question.”

The Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income New Yorkers, led a class-action lawsuit against the NYPD and NYCHA in 2010 in federal court over the use of vertical patrols in public housing, claiming the practices led to the practice of unconstitutional and illegal stops. The city settled the lawsuit in 2015, and the court appointed a monitor to oversee an overhaul of vertical patrols.

Officer Liang and his partner, both rookies, were conducting a nighttime patrol in the stairwell of the Louis H. Pink Houses when a bullet fired from Mr. Liang’s weapon fatally struck Mr. Gurley. Prosecutors have alleged that Officer Liang acted recklessly by having his finger on the trigger of his gun, then failed to respond quickly to assist Mr. Gurley.

Officer Liang’s lawyers have described the shooting as an accident at a crime-ridden location. On Friday, the officer’s attorney, Robert E. Brown, opposed warning the jury about reading coverage of the Thursday’s shooting, noting that the Bronx incident was “remarkably similar to the setup of this case.”

Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun decided to deliver a warning to jurors.

“Please exercise ample caution so you don’t expose yourself to any account of this case by anyone in the media,” he said.

Patrick Lynch, president of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the main police union, also noted the similarities between the two incidents.

“Encountering a perp with a gun is all too common during vertical patrol and it’s the reason that our members, like police Officer Peter Liang, have weapons drawn while performing this job,” he said.

During the Liang trial on Friday, Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner cross-examined a private investigator who was asked to observe the stairwells of the Pink Houses. In a raised voice, Mr. Fliedner asked if residents might be afraid to use the stairs after Mr. Gurley “was shot in the heart,” suggesting that some might fear an ambush in the stairwell.

After the jury left for the day, Officer Liang’s attorney called Mr. Fliedner’s reference to a possible ambush “incredibly inappropriate.”

“While two officers are [lying] in a hospital bed...he’s making light of it in his cross examination that has nothing to do with the witness.”

Assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis defended his colleague, saying that the word “ambush” had been read into evidence from the NYPD training guide.

While some noted the similarities between the Bronx and Brooklyn cases, others stressed their differences. Justice Chun said Officer Liang’s case “is quite different from what happened in the Bronx last night.”

Write to Joseph De Avila at joseph.deavila@wsj.com