Putting Police and Public Housing on Trial: Inside the Case of NYPD Officer Peter Liang
“I’m going to be fired,” said Peter Liang, a New York City police officer of just over 18 months, after shooting a single bullet into the unlit stairwell of the Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn, New York.
The bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old resident of the housing complex, in the chest. He stumbled down two flights of stairs and collapsed on the fifth-floor landing. He lay there bleeding for four minutes, while Liang and his partner argued over whether to report the incident, they claim unaware that a few stories below, a man was dying.
That was in November 2014.
Since then, a grand jury has indicted Liang on six charges: second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct. His trial began this week.
Statistically, it’s not surprising that Liang killed Gurley. The victim was unarmed and black, characteristics of the group most killed by police officers, according to The Counted, an ongoing investigation by the Guardian to record people killed by police in the U.S. What is shocking is that Liang was indicted on any crime at all. According to MappingPoliceViolence.org, police killed 102 unarmed black people last year, and only nine of the cases resulted in a charge.
Looking through these cases, one can find multiple people killed for having toy guns or cellphones, a handful of mentally disabled people police described as “non-compliant,” and numerous traffic stops where officers dispensed fatal bullets.
Just a few months before Gurley’s death, New Yorkers watched a video of a trio of police officers putting Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a chokehold, suffocating him to death while he cried, “I can’t breathe.”
Bu the Liang case is different.
Liang and his partner were in the East New York Pink Housing complex conducting “vertical patrols," a longstanding police tactic that falls somewhere under the broken-windows theory, which targets low-income populations and public housing using the notion that, according to the Columbia Review, “perceptions of disorder call for intense responses to seemingly insignificant offenses.”
These patrols have been the subject of controversy. Tina Luongo of New York’s Legal Aid Society filed a class-action complaint against New York City and its Housing Authority in 2010, “challenging their unlawful policy of routinely subjecting residents and their visitors to stops and arrests purportedly to enforce trespass laws.” According to the New York Times, police later “adopted new guidelines for vertical patrols intended to soften interactions between officers and tenants,” but the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that the number of arrests for trespassing rose 8.8 percent.
Of the patrols, Police Commissioner Bratton said in a press conference, “The reason we are there is because the people in those developments want us there.”
But residents posting on an Internet message board claim they want something else.
“The Pink Houses, in my opinion, is one of the worst managed housing projects to live in…when I moved in I received an entry door key and have not used it once,” one member said, “The reason you don’t need a key is because all the entry door locks are broken and kept widely open for violators and trespassers.” This sentiment is repeated throughout the 16-page-long forum.
The irony of extensive police patrols in public housing that lacks basic door locks is not lost on Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who said, “our priorities are in the wrong place.”
As for the police officers, John Jay College professor Joseph Pollini, a former NYPD detective, said, “It’s not an open view situation…it’s constant twists and turns in the stairwell. Someone could be waiting for an officer to come around that corner.”
Liang, no doubt aware of the vertical patrol’s reputations, nervously entered the negligently dark stairwell of the Pink Houses. At the same time, Gurley entered from one floor below, because the elevator in his building was broken, again. According to all reports, neither knew of the other’s presence until Liang, juggling a flashlight, his gun and the staircase door, accidentally fired his weapon.
(Today the stairwell is bright, thanks to a new bulb installed hours after Gurley’s death—and months after the superintendent of the development asked the NYCHA to replace the light.)
When selecting the jury, Liang’s lawyer asked the jurors if they felt the charges were “heavy-handed.” Members of the Asian-American community feel they are — drawing parallels to the Garner case, where protocol was also broken (the officer in Staten Island used a chokehold illegally), and the white police officer, who targeted the victim and heard his screams for help, walked free. There has been no debate concerning charges against the Housing Authority.
Regardless, Liang, like the officers before him, was confronted with a situation he believed dangerous and in a hasty move, pulled out his gun. There is no argument whether the shooting was an accident. It was. But it is important to consider whether it was the broken light, the officer’s inexperience or the fear of the enduring, illusory and fatal black specter lurking around a corner, that turned Peter Liang into a killer.