One Police Plaza

Killer or Sacrificial Lamb: Maybe Both

February 16, 2015

Is police officer Peter Liang a sacrificial lamb to atone for the non-indictments in the cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men who died at the hands of the police last year?

Liang, who is Asian American, was charged with manslaughter by Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson in the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed, 28-year-old black man whom officer Liang shot, apparently accidentally, while patrolling the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project.

Last year, Thompson, who is black, defeated the longtime, white incumbent Joe Hynes. During his 24-year tenure as D.A., Hynes's office convicted numerous black men of murders they didn’t commit. Thompson has helped free10 of them and is being touted in some sections of the media as the face of criminal justice reform.

Everyone’s race is mentioned because, when it comes to police and the criminal justice system, race matters as much as black lives do.

As do Asian lives.

Gene Canapi, the president of the Asian Jade Society of police officers, said the society was “disappointed” with Liang’s indictment. “The Society hopes that the previous negative interaction and rhetoric between the police and the community does not impact the outcome of PO Liang’s trial,” he said in a statement.

Although Thompson denied that Liang’s indictment was related to the non-indictments in the Garner or Brown cases, one of the people Thompson called before announcing Liang’s indictment was the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton, like many black leaders, had demonstrated for indictments in the Garner and Brown cases. He had also urged Liang’s indictment.

After Liang’s indictment, Sharpton said, “D.A.’s matter. Unlike the [Garner] case in Staten Island, this case shows the difference in a prosecutor who will respect the grand jury’s role to decide probable cause rather than attempt to influence it. …In many ways this is what we have been marching for.”

Thompson’s spokeswoman, Lupe Todd, said the D.A. called Sharpton merely to give him a “heads-up” — as Thompson did with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

Before joining Thompson, Todd was the spokeswoman for Brooklyn Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. After Garner’s death, Jeffries said, “The only way we will be satisfied is if the officer involved in the death of Eric Garner will be convicted and sent upstate.”

After Liang’s indictment, he said, “The indictment is a meaningful step … in the march toward justice for the family of Akai Gurley. District Attorney Thompson should be commended for proceeding with this case on the basis of the law and the facts.”

So far, the facts are different from those in the Brown and Garner cases, when a conscious and willful act on the part of police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, respectively, led to Brown’s and Garner’s deaths.

Liang was patrolling the darkened stairwell of the Pink Houses in East New York with his gun drawn. This potentially dangerous practice is still accepted by the NYPD while patrolling high-crime housing projects like the Pink Houses.

As Liang, who was on duty with partner Scott Landau, opened the stairwell’s door, he accidentally fired, the bullet striking a wall before ricocheting and striking Gurley in the heart. Try recreating that shooting scenario. The odds are higher than winning the Powerball lottery.

“We don’t believe that Officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley,” Thompson said at Liang’s arraignment. “What the evidence showed … is that this police officer put his finger on the trigger and fired that gun into a darkened stairwell when there was no threat.”

According to a top prosecutor from another borough, what Liang did — and failed to do — in the four minutes after the shooting led to his indictment.

“He couldn’t explain those four minutes,” said the prosecutor, who asked for anonymity. “That to me is what got him indicted.”

To understand what Liang did or didn’t do, you have to understand one other thing: both Liang and Landau have maintained they did not realize that Liang’s shot had hit anyone.

Not realizing this, neither Liang nor Landau ran for help nor put the shooting over the air. Liang’s concern was whether he would be fired for improperly firing his weapon.

“This was a tragic accident,” said the prosecutor from another borough, who asked for anonymity. “To this day, the police department has not changed its policy of patrolling with your gun out. But what jury is going to be sympathetic to somebody who didn’t summon help?”

Gurley’s death resembles that of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury, who in 2004 was fatally shot by officer Richard Neri while patrolling the roof of a Brooklyn housing project. Like Liang, Neri’s gun was out when he was startled by Stansbury and accidentally shot him.

Neri testified before a grand jury, which accepted his account that the shooting was accidental.

Similarly, both Wilson and Pantaleo testified before respective grand juries, which chose not to indict them.

Liang, however, did not testify because, said his PBA attorney, Stephen Worth, “It was clear there was an attempt to get an indictment all along.”

Sources said that Liang would have made a poor witness because, unnerved by the shooting, he is “a basket case” and would not have testified articulately.

Worth is an old-school warhorse who has represented cops in two of the city’s highest-profile cases. He represented Charles Schwarz, the so-called “second man” in the bathroom of the 70th Precinct, where Abner Louima was sodomized by police officer Justin Volpe.

Although Schwarz was convicted, an appeals court overturned the verdict.

To this day, it’s unclear whether Schwarz — who ultimately pleaded guilty to perjury — was the second man in the bathroom, or, as Worth had argued, there was no second man at all and that Louima had fabricated his account “to preserve his manhood” because he hadn’t fought back.

This prompted Loretta Lynch, one of the case’s three prosecutors, to refer to him as “Dr. Sigmund Worth.”

Worth also represented one of the four cops in the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant in the Bronx. None of the four testified before the Bronx grand jury hearing the case. Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, then the state’s only black district attorney, indicted the four for second-degree or intentional murder. They were all acquitted at trial.

Referring to Liang’s indictment, Worth said, “Despite the spin anybody wants to put on it, this was an accident.”

Worth’s next key decision may be whether to try the case before a jury or a judge, as is usually the case with fatal police shootings. That decision could involve more racial politics. That judge would be Danny Chun, a Korean American, who presided at Liang’s arraignment and who would be under enormous pressure from both black and Asian activists.

In an interview, Canapi said, “He [Liang] was placed in a situation to help the community. There was no ulterior motive.

“All we ask,” he said,” is that our officers are not treated as second-class citizens but as any other citizen in this city who is entitled to due process under the constitution.”

Who knew that Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has a singing voice?

There he was Friday night leading well-wishers in the singing of “Happy Birthday” for Richard Esposito, the NBC’s investigative head, best known for investigating NBC News anchor Brian Williams. Williams has been suspended for six months after he lied about being in a military helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.

So far as is known, Bratton’s crooning was not audition for Williams’s job.


Copyright © 2015 Leonard Levitt