New York

What Does Peter Liang’s Conviction Mean for the NYPD and Police Accountability?

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On Thursday night, after the rest of the Brooklyn Supreme Court had gone home for the day, and with a hundred hungry reporters pacing out in the hallway, the jury in the trial of 27-year-old New York police officer Peter Liang sent a note to Judge Danny Chun: After three days of deliberation, they had reached a verdict. Liang was guilty of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct in the killing of 28-year-old Akai Gurley last winter. He had just become the first NYPD officer in over a decade to be convicted in a fatal shooting.

A Chinese-American New York cop convicted of killing an innocent black man in 2016, Liang occupies a pretty thorny place in city politics. Many Chinese New Yorkers can remember a time when the NYPD had no Chinese police officers, and some wonder if it’s a coincidence that while white cops who’ve killed black men in recent years have skated, Liang was indicted, prosecuted, and convicted. At the same time, the NYPD and policing in general are under a level of scrutiny that hasn’t been seen in generations, and while there is great political pressure to hold police accountable, there is also deep resistance to systemic change. Tossed on these conflicting currents, Liang is, depending on who you talk to, a bad cop, an unlucky cop, the recipient of bad training, a calculated killer, a fall guy crucified as a sop to police-reform activists, the harbinger of a new era of police indictments, an agent of a racist system, or a victim of it. He might be all of the above.

Liang’s trial was contentious and hard-fought, stretching across three weeks of testimony and argument, but it was notable for the many respects in which the Brooklyn district attorney’s prosecutors and Liang’s defense team were in agreement. Some of this was simply because the basic facts of the case were uncontested and incontrovertible: On November 20, 2014, Liang and his partner, both rookie cops, were on a “vertical patrol” inside the Louis Heaton Pink Houses, a public housing complex in East New York, when Liang’s gun went off. Twenty-eight-year-old Akai Gurley, unarmed and doing nothing wrong, was on the landing one floor below when Liang’s bullet ricocheted off a wall in the poorly lit stairwell and ripped into his heart, killing him.

But beyond just agreeing on the basic facts, the prosecution and defense voiced an emphatic consensus about what Liang’s trial meant. As prosecutors and Liang’s attorneys made their final summations last week, both sides insisted that it was Liang, and Liang alone — not the New York Police Department or American policing in general — on trial.

That assertion served a clear — if very different — purpose for each side. For Liang’s, it was an effort to protect the rookie from his own terrible timing. As the Daily News noted a year ago, of the 179 people killed by New York City police officers in the previous fifteen years, only three cases led to indictment, and only one to conviction. But Liang shot Gurley just months after an NYPD officer was caught on video choking Eric Garner to death on Staten Island and Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In the weeks after Liang shot Gurley, the public uproar over unchecked police violence was further amplified by the non-indictment of the shooters of Garner and Brown. “The decision to make a prosecution in this case is no less political than it is in other cases,” says Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who studies police policy. “This is taking place in the middle of a legitimacy crisis in policing.” In such an environment, Liang’s lawyers calculated, the usual rules were turned on their head: In 2016, hiding behind a badge would do their client more harm than good. “Policing in America is not on trial here,” Robert E. Brown, one of Liang’s attorneys, said in closing arguments. “What’s on trial here is the evidence presented by these prosecutors against my client in this courtroom. He shouldn’t be made a scapegoat for any other thing that’s happening.”

Brown’s position was a variation on the sentiment crystallized in a quickly deleted post from an NYPD Twitter account the month after Liang shot Gurley, which featured Jack Nicholson’s climactic monologue from A Few Good Men. (“Deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!”) “It would have been very easy, when [Liang] went into the darkened stairwell, to say, ‘You know what, they don’t pay me enough to go in there.’ But he took an oath,” Brown told the jury. “You want your police officers to protect you. You want police to do their jobs. And to make a determination that his actions were criminal, that his actions were unjustified by taking his gun out, would send a chilling effect to the police officers in New York City.”

Accidents are regrettable, Brown seemed to be saying, but public housing is dangerous, and if you want order imposed on such places, it’s going to be imposed by cops who may have their guns drawn. And if those guns sometimes kill innocent people, it’s too bad, but it’s hardly the sort of injustice that finds remedy in a criminal court. Liang was unlucky — but unremarkable. He was a cop doing what we ask cops to do every day.

Prosecutors, like Liang’s lawyers, argued from the premise that Liang’s shooting of Gurley was unrelated to any wider controversy over police violence. “The defense is right,” Assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis told jurors in his own summation. “This isn’t about other things that happened in our country. It’s not about other police killings. It’s about this police killing.” For Alexis, however, that distinction wasn’t about protecting Liang — it was about protecting the force from any taint Liang’s case might impart onto it. “It is our position that Peter Liang is not the same as the police officers who bravely keep us safe every day,” Alexis said. “Convicting Peter Liang is not a conviction of the New York City Police Department.”

Liang, in the prosecution’s framing, was a whimpering coward, a guy who couldn’t hack being on that wall: fearful in the dark stairwell, too quick to shoot, too slow to man up, radio the incident in, and try to save Gurley’s life as he lay bleeding out on the landing below. Liang proved in his gutlessness that he was no true police officer, Alexis argued. “There are proud, brave cops who go out every day and patrol every day and every night to keep us safe,” he said. “We honor those cops. We applaud those cops. But Peter Liang falls short of that. Peter Liang is not one of those cops.” Liang’s conduct violated our basic social contract with police, Alexis said. “In exchange for the power we give to police, the power to keep us all safe, the police have a sacred trust that they fulfill, a sacred trust with each community. That trust is that the police department commits to thoroughly train its officers before arming them with deadly weapons and sending them into our communities. That’s why police officers go through rigorous and thorough training.” Liang’s crime, Alexis said, was to disregard that training.

Glimpses of a wider context sometimes found their way into the trial. Since Liang’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the law turned on whether he followed his training, that training came under scrutiny. Liang and his unindicted partner, Shaun Landau, both failed to perform CPR on Gurley after he was shot, leaving the task to his untrained girlfriend. But jurors learned that Liang’s CPR instruction at the academy had been jaw-droppingly inadequate: Multiple police witnesses testified that the academy CPR instructor had literally orchestrated a class-wide cheating system, giving out answers to the final exam to ensure all his students passed the unit. Because the circumstances Liang encountered in the Pink Houses that night were pertinent, the court heard that residents of that NYCHA building, already coping with unreliable elevators, had also been enduring a pitch-black stairwell, the lights out on three successive landings. And because Liang’s adherence to protocol was in question, police witness after police witness testified that, far from deviant, Liang’s decision to draw his gun on a vertical patrol was par for the course, a standard part of police procedure to protect against “ambushes.”

For some observers, these details are more than marginalia. “The individual officer is operating in a context they don’t control,” says Vitale, the Brooklyn College professor. “Through intensive segregation and concentrated poverty, we’ve produced these zones that produce a lot of violence and crime, and then we’re so shocked that crime happens there that we send in a bunch of armed police. And no matter how good the training is or how experienced the officer is, when we ask the police to play this role, it’s going to produce really bad outcomes from time to time.”

In this, Vitale, an outspoken critic of the NYPD and broken-windows policing, doesn’t sound so different from Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) president Pat Lynch, the sometimes cartoonishly zealous defender of New York’s rank-and-file cops, who said after the verdict that vertical patrols are dangerous because officers are given inadequate training and equipment and NYCHA facilities are themselves fundamentally unsafe. Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, went so far as to call on NYPD leadership to suspend vertical patrols altogether.

Thus we find ourselves in a strange place where both police critics and the beat cops themselves agree that there is a problem, one that flows directly from a system that sends young, green police offers into the toughest parts of town with a mandate to patrol and pacify the people living there. And while Police Commissioner William Bratton and defense attorney Brown may both have an interest in suggesting — in this particular case, at least — that there’s no systemic issue hiding behind the curtain, those out on the streets, both patrollers and patrolled, know this is way bigger than one rookie cop.

But that kind of talk doesn’t fit in to the tight binary of a criminal proceeding. “There’s no space for that inside the courtroom,” Vitale says. “There’s no way to put that dynamic on trial. So at best, what most people end up hoping for is individual accountability.”

Individual accountability is precisely what New Yorkers got last week. The morning after the verdict, a Daily News editorial concluded, “The verdict may well be recognized, wrongly, as one about the NYPD and even the state of American policing. Rather, under the rule of law, it was a judgment about the act of one young officer who failed to live up to his obligation to protect and serve.”

While police leadership, prosecutors, and the tabloids are agreed that Liang’s killing of Gurley is to be understood as an aberration, the case of an inept and cowardly bad apple, that consensus hasn’t sat well with some Chinese New Yorkers, many of whom saw in Liang’s indictment a disturbing double standard. “A lot of our people think this is very unfair,” said Eddie Chiu, senior director of the Lin Sing Association, a 116-year-old Chinatown institution. “Why only charge Peter Liang? Because he’s Chinese?”

Chiu helped raise more than $40,000 for Liang from the Chinese community, money the Liang family used to hire their own defense team after growing frustrated with what they felt was inattentive legal representation by the PBA. But other Chinese- and Asian Americans are celebrating Liang’s conviction. CAAAV, an organization that began in Chinatown thirty years ago as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, fighting police brutality against immigrant communities, took the lead in supporting Gurley’s family’s calls for justice against Peter Liang.

Cathy Dang, CAAAV’s executive director, can see how some might find Liang’s prosecution troubling. “He’s an officer of color, and he’s one of the first cops to be put on trial in a very long time,” she says. “There haven’t been indictments of white officers.” But Dang rejects the notion that Liang is a scapegoat. “A scapegoat is someone who didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. “Peter Liang did do something wrong: He killed Akai Gurley.”

Liang’s indictment and conviction aren’t necessarily evidence that he’s a sacrificial lamb, taking the fall for a racist system, Dang says. They might just be evidence that the tide is finally turning. “The climate has changed so much from when Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed,” she says. “The movement for police accountability has never been as strong as it is now, and those conditions made it so that the district attorney could indict Liang. Around the country, we’re starting to see more and more police officers being held to account in the justice system.”

The day after Liang’s conviction, the family of Akai Gurley was already shifting its focus from individual accountability to a wider structural overhaul. “We want justice beyond the courtroom,” they wrote in a statement. “We want policy changes within the NYPD, to end the violence that police officers routinely inflict on our communities.” They called for an end to vertical patrols, a withdrawal of the NYPD from public housing, and a reallocation of police funds to affordable housing and after-school programs. Police unions, negligent prosecutors, and indifferent politicians are all on notice, they said. “We will keep pushing for the systemic changes we need to end police violence for good.”

Peter Liang was fired by the NYPD the same day he was convicted. He faces up to fifteen years in prison.