After putting on her official NYPD jacket most mornings, the 46-year-old mother of Bed-Stuy shooting victim Timothy Stansbury Jr. grabs a quick smoke before heading to her job as a school crossing guard a block away. It has taken a lot of strength for Phyllis Clayburne to keep donning that uniform since 19-year-old Timothy, her only son, was shot and killed by NYPD Officer Richard Neri on January 24, 2004.
It had been easy until then, because Clayburne’s father was a cop, and her sister is also one.
But then her son and two friends were climbing a stairwell in the Louis Armstrong projects, carrying CDs to a party, when the door to the roof suddenly opened and Neri opened fire, killing Timothy.
“I often think of me getting killed out here by trying to get the children to and from school in the safety zone,” she says, “and here, I turn around, my son is dead just by crossing the roof, something that I’ve done that’s common in the neighborhood.”
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly called the shooting “unjustified,” but a mostly black and Latino grand jury, presided over by a young, black female judge, didn’t indict the 12-year veteran Neri, who is white. The NYPD didn’t take disciplinary action against Neri, who claimed to have been startled and to have blacked out. Adding insult to injury, Neri was elected a paid police union delegate in March 2005, where his duties in Brooklyn North included being the person who gives advice at scenes to cops who shoot people.
As if to parry the whole miserable episode, Clayburne seems determined to preserve a different memory of Timothy, and not just by adorning her apartment with photos of him. Not long ago, for example, Clayburne was successful in her efforts to get Lexington Avenue, where her son lived and on which he was killed, officially renamed Timothy Stansbury Street.
Clayburne has some emotions to work through that don’t usually beset mothers of people shot by cops: a close connection to cops. She has worked for the NYPD in some capacity since joining a summer youth program at age 14.
“It hit me real hard,” she says, “because you don’t expect the same people that you work for would have one of your children killed, but it happened.”
A dozen years ago, she started working as a school crossing guard and recalls what she told her son at the time. “When I got this job,” she says, “I sat him and his sister down and said, ‘I am now a New York City police officer, I just don’t have a gun, but I’m one of them, and whatever you do in life you have to pick your friends.’ And they did.” But on that night almost three-and-a-half years ago, it didn’t matter that Timothy Stansbury had never been in trouble with the law and that Richard Neri was one of her fellow cops.
“To some degree,” she says, “I’m trying to forgive him for what he has done to my child. I’ve worked in that precinct and I’ve known some pretty darn good cops that have come out of the 79th that I’ve grown up with. I’ve worked in three or four different precincts, so I can’t judge other cops on what he did, because there are some good cops out here that really care.”
Descending the steps of Restoration Houses on her way to her job, fixing her hat on her head under a slow drizzle, Clayburne says: “I try not to have hate. I look at it as what can I do as a mother, because I’m not the only mother that had to go through this. Mrs. Diallo [Amadou’s mother], who I speak to often, had to go through this. Something has to come out of this that’s going to benefit all of our sons who have been killed by police.”
Clayburne has at least moved on enough to finally do something that her son’s death postponed: She has married her fiancé of six years—the ceremony had been scheduled for 2004.
Her $600 million civil suit against the city eventually resulted in a $2 million settlement. She’s still waiting for apologies from Neri or the NYPD but says, “I don’t expect to get one. It is what it is. When you’re on the other side, you get no justice.”
Meanwhile, it’s time for her to go to work.