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Shooting raises questions of accountability

By Prem Calvin Prashad

Last week, former Police Officer Peter Liang was convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley. The rookie cop had his gun drawn while conducting a patrol of NYCHA’s Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn and negligently fired into the darkened stairwell, ricocheting off a wall and striking Gurley in the chest. In a subsequent press conference, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton described Gurley, who was in the building to visit his girlfriend, as a “complete innocent.”

The prosecution’s case detailed Liang’s negligent behavior both before and after the incident and included testimony from his partner, who was granted immunity for his cooperation. Liang and his partner waited 20 minutes to call for help and the rookie cop had texted his union representative first, rather than administering aid.

Though the grand jury decision to indict Liang for his role in the killing caused grumbling across Chinese-American communities in Queens and beyond, that discontent exploded into outrage at the conviction, with thousands of protesters converging, last Saturday on Cadman Plaza Park, in Brooklyn. The protesters condemned Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson and declared Liang a sacrifice to public anger about white police officers killing unarmed black men across the country. Protesters held signs alleging that there were “two victims” and insisted that they, too, wanted justice for Akai Gurley, in spite of the victim’s family being clearly in favor of the verdict.

Queens elected officials and candidates for office, both current and former, and from both parties, joined the chorus, tweeting #asianscapegoat and speaking at the rally.

People’s reasons for joining the protest varied, with some insisting on Liang’s innocence or asserting that he should be forgiven for the “accident.” Former police officers decried the danger of housing projects and insisted that they would patrol with weapons drawn. Others blamed Black Lives Matter activists, alleging their efforts caused his conviction.

Asian American civil rights organizations and activists that supported the Gurley family, such as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, found themselves the subject of threats and condemnation, denounced as “race traitors” that had declined to support “one of their own.”

A few supporters drew tenuous links to cases of violence and discrimination against Chinese Americans, from the erroneous prosecution of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee for espionage, to the beating death of Vincent Chin by two white autoworkers. Some drew parallels to Danny Chen, a private in the US Army from Chinatown who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being bullied and harshly disciplined by members of his unit. Missing from those assertions, of course, was the fact that all persons named, except Peter Liang, were victims.

A very clear case has been made against Peter Liang for his role in killing Akai Gurley. His second-degree manslaughter conviction accounts for the accidental but reckless nature of the shooting and his actions immediately after the incident, in refusing to administer aid, undoubtedly led to his conviction. Regardless of whether Liang’s conviction is the result of increased public awareness and outrage over police involved killings does not make him a “scapegoat,” but is an acknowledgement that Liang and officers like him need to be held accountable, regardless of what has happened in other jurisdictions or in the past.

The NYPD must commit to improving both practices and accountability to prevent future tragedies. Both the department and the mayor’s office have remained largely silent on the case and have yet to reach a consensus on the highly controversial and dangerous practice of having rookies conduct “vertical patrols” in housing projects. At trial, both Liang and his partner Shane Landau, testified that they had received rudimentary firearms training and neither felt qualified to perform CPR on the dying victim. Whether this is true, that any NYPD rookies would exit training with this perception needs to be addressed immediately.

Lastly, the department must be clear on how Liang’s supervisors will be held accountable for putting two rookie officers in a situation where they felt endangered and panicked. It is simply not enough for Commissioner Bratton to acknowledge the rift between black communities and law enforcement, especially now that the Chinese-American community feels that it has been pulled into this rift. It should not take a federal investigation, as it did in the Garner case, to move the department to review practices and procedures.

Peter Liang faces 15 years in prison and will be sentenced on April 15. His defense team plans to appeal.

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