One Police Plaza

Behind Ken Thompson's No-Jail-Time Recommendation

March 28, 2016

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson will never admit it, but his recommendation that Peter Liang serve no jail time for killing an unarmed black man seems a tacit acknowledgement that his office may have misled the jury into convicting the ex-cop.

Thompson said last week the shooting was accidental and that there was no evidence Liang had “intended to kill or injure” Akai Gurley in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project.

This contradicts Assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis, who said in closing arguments that Liang fired deliberately and struck Gurley.

The jury apparently disregarded the fact that Liang’s bullet struck a wall, then ricocheted, killing Gurley. Instead, jurors convicted Liang of manslaughter, which calls for a maximum 15-year prison term when he is sentenced next month.

With Thompson’s recommendation, perhaps the most relieved participant after Liang is presiding Judge Danny Chun. At sentencing, the Korean-American Chun will be under pressure from Gurley’s family and their African-American supporters who demand jail time, and from Liang’s Chinese-American backers who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense. Liang’s supporters have held nationwide protests, noting that white officers are rarely indicted, much less convicted, in the deaths of unarmed black suspects. Chinese protesters in Brooklyn cited the so-called “chokehold” killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict.

Thompson’s recommendation gives Chun cover, should he spare Liang prison time. Not that this is a given. Chun might sentence Liang to, say, a year in prison, thinking this might cool passions. 

But that also is not a given. Last week, a rabble-rousing crowd descended on Thompson’s office. Its leaders, Brooklyn City Councilmember Inez Barron and her husband, Assemb. Charles Barron, threatened riots if Chun does not sentence Liang to jail time.

The Barrons have some street cred here. In 2004, in a remarkably similar shooting, Charles Barron spoke out for the parents of Timothy Stansbury, a black teenager fatally shot on the roof of his Bed-Stuy housing project by white cop Richard Neri. Neri testified before a grand jury that he had shot Stansbury accidentally. The grand jury did not indict him.

Meanwhile, NYC’s black political establishment, such as it is, has been restrained over Thompson’s recommendation. City Councilmember Jumaane Williams said only that he was “concerned” and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said merely that he wasn’t sure he agreed with it. Brooklyn Rep. Hakeem Jeffries — who after Garner’s death in Staten Island said “The only way will be satisfied is if the officer involved … will be convicted and sent upstate” to prison — has not publicly spoken on the matter. Ditto, the Rev. Al Sharpton.

So did Thompson recommend no jail for Liang to diffuse the anger of the police unions, which had objected to the indictment? Was he responding to unfavorable media comment, including from NYPD Confidential, about how his office handled the case?

Or did he act from conviction that this was the right thing to do?

Whatever his motivation, his actions throughout the case have sent a message: When it comes to the police killing unarmed civilians, Brooklyn is not Staten Island.

POLICE COMMISSIONER BILL BRATTON says statements by GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz that the police should return to the “pro-active” policing of his predecessor to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized” are insulting to the NYPD’s 900 Muslim officers.

Bratton didn’t abandon his predecessor’s over-the-top spying on the city’s Muslim communities because of what Cruz termed “political correctness.” According to Intelligence Division documents obtained in 2011 by NYPD Confidential and the Associated Press — which won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting — the NYPD compiled information on 250 mosques, 12 Islamic schools, 31 Muslim student associations, 263 “ethnic hotspots” and 138 “persons of interest.” [See NYPD Confidential Sept. 5, 2011.]

Why did Bratton abandon this over-the-top spying? Because it produced nothing of value.

What a mess are we in when presidential candidates don’t know what they are taking about, a la Donald Trump. Or worse, when a candidate knows what he is saying is inaccurate and, like Cruz, says it anyway.

When it comes to the Middle East, President Barack Obama has been all windup and no delivery. He still acts as though ISIS is the junior varsity, and poses no “existential threat” to the United States. George W. Bush may have spawned ISIS after he lied us into Iraq. But as Obama’s actions have shown us, leaving a power vacuum can be just as dangerous.

Yes, Obama may have a higher I.Q. than any of us. But he doesn’t understand that dictators view kindness and compassion only as weakness, and that they are emboldened after a president makes promises, such as his red line in Syria, that he doesn’t keep.

What a country we live in. What a mess we’re in.

Copyright © 2016 Leonard Levitt