Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Accidents" and Rookie Cops

2014 NYPD rookie graduates swearing their oaths at Madison Square Garden
It's not easy for civilians to imagine what's going inside the mind of a rookie police officer.

You're new on the job, fresh from the academy, trying to impress your more experienced peers and superiors while learning the ins and outs of a highly stressful occupation.

Surely you must be mindful of the immense power to enforce the law.

A power manifested in that gun on your hip.

When do you draw it from your holster? Who do you use it on and why?

I guess many civilians like myself who've grown up watching movies and television shows tend to imagine police bravely exchanging shots with sinister bad guys who've just robbed a bank, assaulted an innocent victim, or are fleeing from the scene of a grisly murder.

Do rookie cops imagine themselves doing that too? Do some of them secretly look forward to doing that?

There were two different instances of the use of deadly police force this week that make me wonder.

If you're reading this you've most likely heard about 28 year-old Akai Gurley, an innocent, unarmed African-American who was shot and killed late last Thursday night.

The father of a two year-old daughter was shot in the chest by 27 year-old rookie NYPD officer Peter Liang in the darkened stairwell of an eight story building located in the Louis Pink housing projects, comprised of 22 different eight-story buildings set on 31.1 acres in East Brooklyn, New York.

The Brooklyn housing project where Akai Gurley was shot and killed.
The East Brooklyn precinct is considered a high crime area with a mostly black population, but that doesn't mean everyone who lives there is a criminal.

What's disturbing about this incident is that officer Liang, who had his gun and a flashlight drawn in a dark stairwell, wasn't physically threatened. He wasn't in pursuit of a suspect.

He never warned Akai Gurely and never even announced that he was a police officer.

Gurley and his girlfriend Melissa Butler opened the door to the stairwell and Liang, 12 feet away, just fired a single shot from his gun. As an article by Wilson Dizard on Al-Jazeera.com reported:

“The cop didn’t present himself, he just shot him in the chest,” a distraught, tearful Butler told The New York Times. Butler stayed with her boyfriend until the two rookie cops, continuing down the stairs, reached them moments later. Neighbors and the officers called for an ambulance. Doctors at Brookedale hospital pronounced Gurley dead at about 11:55 p.m.

Thus a man's life was taken seven days before Thanksgiving.

Bill Bratton, the commissioner of the NYPD was quick to call it an accident even though no official investigation has taken place; was it an accident?

If Liang was frightened and inexperienced, what was he doing patrolling a high-crime area with partner Sean Landau, also allegedly an inexperienced rookie, instead of with a veteran officer?

Gurley and his girlfriend were taking the stairs down because the elevator was notoriously slow; why were the lights out in the stairwell of an apartment building owned by the city housing authority?

Especially one named after Louis Heaton Pink, an altruistic businessman and humanitarian born in 1882 who fought to forge a public-private partnership to eliminate city slums.

It was Pink who laid out the plan and introduced a bill that led to the founding of the New York City Housing Authority; and I wonder what he would think about the stairwells being unlit in a public housing apartment building that bears his name?

If we consider all these different factors, can Gurley's death really be dismissed as an accident?

On Saturday afternoon, the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in 1963, there was an "accident" in Cleveland, Ohio involving a 12 year-old African-American boy.

Cleveland park where police killed a 12 year-old boy on Saturday.
According to an article on Cleveland.com Someone called 911 to report a man with a gun in a park/recreation area on the West side of Cleveland (pictured left).

When a rookie police officer and a fifteen-year veteran officer pulled up to the park and saw a group of people under a pavillion, a 12 year-old boy took a gun off a table and tucked it into his pants.

The rookie officer got out of the car and ordered the boy to drop the gun, the boy reached for it, which he had to do in order to actually comply with the officer's order to drop it.

The officer didn't wait to see if the 12 year-old boy would comply, instead he fired two shots; one of which struck him in the stomach.

Turns out the gun was a BB gun with an orange sticker scraped off that ID's it as a fake weapon.

The boy was taken to the hospital and later died from his wounds. The Cleveland police officers involved have both been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. 

There's no question it was impossible for the two officers to have known the gun wasn't real, or that the person wielding it was only 12 years-old; but they must have known that their department is already under investigation by the Department of Justice for habitual excessive use of force. 

In all fairness the officers were probably already on edge after a Saturday morning press conference just hours before by Cleveland police chief Calving Williams who announced the tragic news that a 41 year-old mother, her unborn child, a 60 year-old man, a 19 year-old man and a 17 year-old woman were all shot and killed in a home late Friday night by an unknown assailant or assailants.

A 9 year-old girl was wounded but survived and there's no question that the community (not just the Cleveland community) needs to be as outraged about the unknown assailant killing five people and wounding one as they are about a 12 year-old boy being shot in a park.

The rookie officer had to have been thinking about that incident when he and his partner responded to the 911 call about someone wielding a gun in a park.

Was his shooting of the 12 year-old boy an "accident"? Or the tragic result of a series of incidents and factors that can't possibly be simply chalked up to any one identifiable "thing" we can point to?

As the nation and the world anxiously await the soon-to-be announced decision of a grand jury in Missouri on whether or not to charge officer Darren Wilson with the death of black teenager Michael Brown, the incidents in East Brooklyn and Cleveland take on a much larger meaning that goes beyond the deaths of Akai Gurley and the as yet unnamed 12 year-old boy in a Cleveland park.

There is an urgent need to address and acknowledge that many (not all) law enforcement professionals in this country disproportionately resort to the use of deadly force or excessive violence in encounters with people of color - a critical human rights issue America needs to understand before effective solutions can be found.

But we damn well better start figuring it out, because innocent unarmed people are paying for our not understanding with their lives.

Perhaps if more resources, expertise and training were devoted to understanding what's going on inside the mind of a police officer before they find themselves in some of these encounters, innocent lives could be spared - maybe that's what the meaning of "To Protect and Serve" is really all about.

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