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The Stairwell Shooting: It's Complicated

November 24, 2014

The probationary officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in the pitch-black stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project had no reason to have his gun drawn and less reason to have his finger near or on the trigger — other than fear, says a former top police official.

“They [cops] get afraid. He was afraid,” said the former top official of cop Peter Liang, who shot and killed 27-year-old Akai Gurley on Thursday.

The Louis H. Pink Houses in the East New York are among the city’s most dangerous housing complexes. There were two robberies and four assaults there in the last month and two homicides in the past year, according to NYPD figures.

“I understand it is dark. I understand how dangerous some of those housing projects are,” said the official, one of several current and former NYPD officers who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But there are two of them. They have their flashlights. It’s great tool for scaring away the bogeyman. You scan first. Let’s say you hear the slamming of a door or the scurrying of feet. You yell, ‘police.’

“But unless there is a reason such as a radio run or a report for a man with a gun, there is no reason to draw your weapon when you patrol. You can't tell cops they're not supposed to feel danger. But at some point you have to man up.”

A current top department official acknowledged that there are no written police guidelines as to when a cop can draw his weapon, which appears to be common practice in housing stairwells and rooftops.

He also acknowledged that the reforms Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has promised, such as teaming rookies with experienced officers in high-crime areas, have yet to be implemented owing to manpower issues.

Gurley’s shooting comes at a sensitive time for police with the impending grand jury decision in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Monday's grand jury findings in the fatal police shooting of a teen in Ferguson, Missouri.

That said, there is also some good news — much as anything can be called good in such a tragic situation.

First, there appears to be no attempt to justify the police action or to absolve the officer as has been the case in past NYPD shootings.

Bratton has called Gurley “a total innocent,” who “was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type.”

“They called it what it was,” another former top police official said of the NYPD. “They’ve acknowledged there was no conversation between the cop and the victim. No one said he had a gun or that he made a move. They made a concerted effort to say that victim did nothing wrong. There were newspaper reports that the victim has an extensive arrest record. But in this case, so what?”

“It’s a bad shooting but the department has been transparent right out of the gate. The Job was completely forthright.”

The department also did not attempt to discredit the victim, as has been the case in past police shootings.

There was no attempt to search Gurley’s apartment to discover anything that could discredit him — as police did to Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant shot and killed by police in the Bronx in 1999.

There was no attempt to blame the shooting on Gurley’s prior actions, as was the case of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant sodomized with a broomstick by a cop in the bathroom of the 70th precinct in 1997. Back then, some cops whispered that Louima’s injuries were a result of rough gay sex at a Haitian nightclub the previous night.

There was no attempt to demonize Gurley, as former police commissioner Howard Safir did to Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed black man fatally shot in 2000 by an undercover cop after his partner asked Dorismond where to buy marijuana and the two began fighting.

Seeking public support for the cops’ actions and citing “the public’s right to know,” Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered Safir to release Dorismond’s criminal record, including a sealed juvenile arrest when he was 13 years old.

Nor did the department appear to prejudge the case as former commissioner Ray Kelly did after officer Richard Neri — also patrolling with his gun drawn — shot unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury on the rooftop of a Bedford-Stuyvesant housing complex in 2004.

Before the police investigation was complete, Kelly termed the shooting outside police guidelines, ignoring the fact that it might have been accidental — the conclusion reached by a Brooklyn grand jury, which chose not to indict him.

In retaliation, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association issued a vote of no confidence in Kelly. Neri was subsequently elected a PBA delegate.

In the Gurley shooting, fringe groups and local politicians have not been assuaged by the NYPD response. During a rally over the weekend, a group called for Bratton’s firing while others displayed “Wanted for Murder” posters for the officer.

The formerly mild-mannered Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), who has called for the arrest and conviction of Garner “chokehold” cop Daniel Pantaleo, said in a statement of Gurley’s shooting, “The senseless killing of another unarmed African-American male by the NYPD should shock the conscience of all New Yorkers and the nation.”

Apparently referring to the police explanations, the statement read, “Talk is cheap.”

Yes, Hakeem, it is.

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