It was a 911 call that brought NYPD officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini to the Colonial Park Houses in Harlem.
They went inside and, finding no emergency, headed back to their squad car. As they walked out of the apartment building, witnesses would later say, they were ambushed and shot several times from behind by as many as five assailants. Both men died shortly after. No suspects were immediately identified.
The May 21, 1971, assault wasn’t the first act of violence that targeted the NYPD that year. The murder of Jones and Piagentini came only days after two other officers were sprayed with automatic gunfire while sitting in their patrol car. They survived the drive-by shooting.
Less than a year later, before anyone had been arrested in the Harlem murders, two officers were killed in what appeared to be another targeted attack. Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster were ambushed on a street in the East Village as they exited a diner late on January 27, 1972. Again the officers were shot to death from behind, and again few leads were forthcoming.
It would be years before all four murders were linked to a militant organization called the Black Liberation Army, a violent breakaway faction of the Black Panthers that had targeted police in similar incidents across the nation. The group was durable and well-organized; from the late 1960s through 1974, it may have been responsible for as many as 19 police killings nationwide, along with a variety of other violent crimes and robberies. The group took responsibility for a non-fatal bombing at a murdered police officer’s funeral in San Francisco in 1970; a grenade attack on a police cruiser in Queens in 1971 was also attributed to the organization. No arrests were made in the San Francisco incident until 2007.
The 1971 police shootings in New York, and the realization that there was an organized campaign against the cops, created a siege mentality in the NYPD and among its officers. After the Harlem incident, the department was worried enough to assign unmarked cars as escorts to police cruisers in the neighborhoods near where Jones and Piagentini were killed. The murders escalated tensions in other ways as well, producing a call for heavier arms for police officers and helping galvanize a push for shotguns in patrol cars. In 1973 Robert McKiernan — then the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — wrote an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that “one revolutionary with a large hole blown through him would have been a marvelous deterrent to the next nut who thinks it’s a good idea to shoot at cops.”
Herman Bell is one of the men convicted for the murder of Jones and Piagentini all those years ago. For decades he maintained that he was framed for the killings. It wasn’t until 2012 that he took responsibility, expressing remorse for the “tactics” used back then but situating his actions within a political context. (Bell’s website, maintained from prison with the help of supporters, claims he was “part of the black struggle for self-determination movement,” combating what he calls “an unambiguous racist policy of police malevolence: willful brutality, excessive use of deadly force, and general disrespect of Black people’s rights.”)
Saturday, December 20, saw another targeted killing of NYPD officers, this time in Brooklyn. The suspect in that case, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, invoked on Instagram the names of Eric Garner — misspelling his name as “Eriv Gardner” — and Michael Brown, styling his actions as an act of revenge for the deaths this past summer of two unarmed black men, one on Staten Island, the other in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of white police officers.
A New York Daily News article published the day of the shooting, relying on anonymous sources within the police department, initially linked Brinsley to the “Black Guerilla Family,” a prison gang that recently threatened violence against police officers. The article and some other early coverage suggested a premeditated political act.
Soon after, prominent voices in the city drew a direct link between the shooting and the recent protests surrounding the deaths of Garner and Brown.
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch immediately laid the blame for the murders at the feet of Mayor Bill de Blasio and “those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest.”
On Monday, December 22, NYPD commissioner William Bratton said the killings were a “direct spin-off” of the demonstrations, and de Blasio called for a suspension of protests, further conflating Brinsley’s actions and the message of demonstrators. Al Sharpton, one of the most visible leaders in the protest movement, immediately distanced his organization from Brinsley’s act.
It’s still early in the investigation into Brinsley’s past and his motives. But the latest reports suggest he was not driven by any coherent political ideology. Rather, the details that have emerged since the killings reveal a troubled man with a violent past and mental-health issues.
Brinsley had been estranged from much of his family, some of whom — including his mother — admitted to being afraid of him. He also reportedly has a history of psychiatric hospitalization and suicide attempts. The NYPD’s chief of detectives, Robert Boyce, said in a press conference the day after the killings that Brinsley didn’t have an affiliation with any radical group. The early reporting about the Black Guerilla Family was soon knocked down. Brinsley had no known gang affiliations. Nor does he appear to have been involved in any protests, even at the periphery.
His last Facebook status update, posted on December 20, reads, “I Always Wanted To Be Known For Doing Something Right……. But My Past Is Stalking Me And My Present Is Haunting Me.”
A few hours before he opened fire on Officer Rafael Ramos, a 40-year-old husband and father of a 13-year-old boy; and newly married Wenjian Liu, age 32, Brinsley shot his girlfriend in Baltimore in an as-yet-unexplained fit of violence. She is expected to survive. Immediately after the shootings in Brooklyn, as police combed the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brinsley shot himself in the head on a subway platform.
At the same time, if the PBA’s statements are taken at face value, the siege mentality of the 1970s has returned. The union has announced that two units will now respond to all calls for service, and Lynch, the group’s president, declared December 21 that the NYPD is now a “wartime” department.