Focus on prelude to shooting
June 11, 2004
The issue in the indictment of Officer Bryan Conroy is not whether he felt his life was threatened when he fired the shots that killed Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed African emigrant in a Chelsea warehouse last year.
The issue is whether Conroy felt his life was threatened in the minutes before he drew his gun. That action set in motion the chain of events that led to Zongo's death.
"The indictment against Conroy for second-degree manslaughter by a Manhattan grand jury was not about the shooting," said a source familiar with the case. "It was about his tactics - about Conroy's decision to draw his weapon as well as the tactics of a police commander to place a young cop in plainclothes in an undercover operation like this."
Or as Conroy's attorney, Stuart London, put it, "When do questionable police tactics become criminality?"
Conroy, then a three-year veteran, had been part of a plainclothes operation on May 22, 2003, in a Chelsea warehouse on West 27th Street where counterfeit CDs and movies were stored.
He was alone on the third floor, guarding property, wearing a mailman's uniform consisting of a jacket, shirt and pants. Conroy, 25, told the grand jury that his police shield was pinned to his shirt, when Zongo, who had a storage locker there, appeared.
In two days of questioning in the grand jury last month by Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Armand Durastanti, Conroy was asked why he had drawn his gun on Zongo.
Did Conroy feel his life or someone else's was in danger, he was asked, according to London. Conroy said he did not. Did he feel Zongo had presented a threat to him or to anyone else? Conroy answered no.
Conroy then testified that after he identified himself to Zongo as a police officer and Zongo failed to halt as commanded, he drew his gun to identify himself as a cop.
As a news release yesterday from Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau starkly put it: "At some point as Conroy was safeguarding the storage unit he had been assigned to, Mr. Zongo appeared in the hallway some distance away from him, drawing the defendant's attention. Conroy drew his gun and pointed it at him."
Conroy then alerted other members of his team that he was in pursuit of a man, whom he believed was a robber. Fleeing, Zongo apparently believed the same about Conroy.
According to Morgenthau's news release, "The pursuit ended in an encounter between the defendant and Mr. Zongo in a different area of the third floor, roughly 530 feet from the storage unit Conroy had been guarding."
Conroy fired his gun five times. Four shots struck Zongo. Conroy testified that Zongo lunged for his gun, that a struggle ensued and that Conroy had no choice but to shoot.
Apparently, the grand jury believed him on that point.
"If they thought the shooting was unjustified," said a person familiar with the case, "they would have indicted Conroy for murder or first-degree manslaughter.
"The grand jury must have believed the shooting was justified. But the indictment is not about the shooting. It is about pulling out a gun on an unarmed man who meant no harm to him," the source said.
© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.