Grand Jury considering indictment of Asian American cop in shooting death of unarmed Akai Gurley

December 9, 2014
Akai Gurley was killed November 20th by a single gunshot fired by rookie police officer Peter Liang (photo credit: Facebook)
Akai Gurley was killed November 20th by a single gunshot fired by rookie police officer Peter Liang (photo credit: Facebook)

There was no indictment in the shooting death of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. There was no indictment  in the choking death of unarmed Black man Eric Garner by NYPD officer Dan Pantaleo.

Now, a Brooklyn Grand Jury is considering an indictment in the shooting death of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old Black man who died after being shot once in the chest by NYPD rookie officer Peter Liang, who is Asian American.

On November 20th, Liang was patrolling the stairwells of the Louis H. Pink Houses, and was descending from the roof with his gun drawn. At the same time, Gurley entered the unlit stairwell with his girlfriend one floor down from Liang. One shot was fired from Liang’s gun, penetrating Gurley’s chest and heart.

Whether it was an accident or intentional, what happened next is more damning to Liang’s case: the New York Daily News reported on Friday that in the six and a half minutes that Gurley lay dying in the stairwell, Liang and his partner, Officer Shaun Landau, failed to call for help. Instead, the News reports that while 911 operators and the officers’ commanding officers were trying to reach the two cops after a neighbour’s call, the two officers may instead have been texting a union representative from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

In the critical moments after the Nov. 20 shooting, the cops’ commanding officer and an emergency operator — responding to a 911 call from a neighbor and knowing the duo was in the area — tried to reach them in vain, sources said.

The News cites unnamed sources, and police spokesmen flatly deny the story leaving it unclear as to the stories credibility. Furthermore, we don’t have a good sense of what transpired in the moments leading up to Gurley’s fatal shooting — whether it was an accident or yet another example of excessive force.

What we can wonder about, however, is whether the facts we can verify reveal that Liang and Landau conducted themselves according to proper police protocol; and we can already raise questions in this regard. Firstly, this incident — like Brown’s death after a jaywalking detainment and Garner’s death during an arrest attempt for selling loose cigarettes — begs an ongoing question over the high cost in (predominantly Black) lives of NYPD’s ongoing Broken Windows policing policy: a racist and classist policy of heavy-handed enforcement against misdemeanor infractions that only encourage combative interactions between police and civilians. Liang and Landau’s assignment to patrol the Louis H. Pink housing project is part of that policing approach.

Even given this policy, Liang and Landau’s commanding officer had ordered them not to conduct a vertical patrol in the housing unit’s stairwells. Yet, Liang — an inexperienced police officer — and his partner chose to disobey this particular order and do the vertical patrol in a pitch-black stairwell, with a weapon drawn; is this really standard procedure? Furthermore, we know that Liang and Landau took a full six minutes to call for medical attention for Gurley as he lay dying, regardless of how that intervening time was filled. As with Brown and Garner, police are demonstrating an appalling lack of urgency when it comes to life-saving measures for dying Black men.

The Brooklyn Grand Jury will be considering the question of whether these actions fit with standard police procedure in their decision to indict or not. The New York Times reports:

A central question for the grand jury to consider, Professor [Delores] Jones-Brown [of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice] said, is “what police are trained and authorized to do in these kinds of situations.” If the police action goes against training and police guidelines, the next step would be to determine how much of the officer’s behavior had diverged from “the kind of care he should’ve been exercising,” she said.

To me, the facts of the case are difficult to parse; was this an accident or criminal negligence? It is precisely the presence of these nagging questions that lead me to support an indictment. The family of Akai Gurley — like that of Eric Garner and Michael Brown — deserve a trial to examine the circumstances of his death. They deserve the dignity of due process. They deserve the respect towards (Black) life that comes with fully questioning the circumstances of a Black person’s death.

There is also a part of me that can’t help but see the sweet, sweet symbolism. Perhaps I am projecting my own politics onto this case, but I find this case a symbolic testament to the precarious position that Asian Americans claim in the larger racial landscape of America. As a police officer, Peter Liang assumes the role of the authority figure. In essence, he becomes an embodiment of the Honorary White metaphor, and how it is used to police the behaviour of non-Asian people of colour. Yet, Liang also reminds of the fragility of Honorary Whiteness; how the status of the Honorary White is patronizingly and transiently bestowed; how it can be just as easily revoked when convenient.

Don’t get me twisted. As a general rule, I think that police officers who cause the death of unarmed civilians should be indicted; Liang is no exception. I want justice for Gurley and the many other Black men who have lost their lives to what appears to be excessive police force, and that can only come with a careful consideration of the facts through trial.

But doesn’t it say something about the state of race in America when in this national era of unrest and growing police illegitmacy, it is a non-White police officer who may be the first of these high-profile cases who faces indictment? Doesn’t it say something about contemporary race relations’ divide-and-conquer tactics: built around the myth of Black criminality and reinforced by Asian Americans as the wedge, that could end up leaving one man of colour dead and another man of colour in jail as the sacrificial lamb?

Or, maybe I really am just projecting.

  • You ask whether this was an accident or criminal negligence, but I would add another option: recklessness. NY Penal Law states: “A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation”.

    If what we know now is what really happened, there appears to be a pretty strong case for recklessness, which would mean a second degree manslaughter charge that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. Contrast this with 4 years maximum for negligent homicide.

    That said, I totally agree with your last three paragraphs.

  • Great comment! Thank you!

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