‘One Tragedy, Two Victims’

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After two years as a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer, 28-year-old Peter Liang buried his face in his hands in front of the New York State Supreme Court on Feb. 11.

Back in 2014, rookie officer Liang was conducting a vertical patrol in an apartment complex in Brooklyn. After being startled by a noise, he discharged his gun. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and pierced the heart of Akai Gurley, an unarmed African American father. Liang failed to administer CPR and left the building with his partner before calling for help.

Illustration by Celia Fong
Illustration by Celia Fong

Melissa Butler, Gurley’s girlfriend who was with him during the shooting, testified that she “leaned over him in a puddle of blood and urine.” Liang said he was hesitant to intervene, because he felt inexperienced with the procedure and wanted to wait for medical professionals.

After two days of jury deliberation, Liang was convicted of manslaughter and misconduct and faces up to 15 years of prison time.

This is a victory in our justice system, isn’t it?

After years of fatal shootings and police brutality in New York, a police officer is finally charged and convicted for killing an innocent civilian. Our criminal court system has a long and appalling record of failing to properly punish injustices caused by police misconduct.

The NYPD is no stranger to this. They have been under scrutiny for their ongoing “stop-and -frisk” program — a practice allowing officers to investigate any “suspicious activity” — which disproportionately incarcerated people of color living in low-income, government-subsidized housing. Vertical patrols, like the one Liang was on, have recently been criticized for the same bias.

Vertical patrolling is a controversial technique in which officers sweep government-funded housing projects. New York City’s police Commissioner William Bratton allows officers the discretion of unholstering their firearms in these conditions. It’s a flawed practice that increases the risk for both parties involved.

The truth is that the unintentional killing of Gurley could have been avoided if NYPD’s system was re-evaluated holistically. Nevertheless, there have been 112 on-duty NYPD-involved fatalities since 2005, but this is the first NYPD officer convicted of manslaughter in over a decade.

So why are there about 10,000 protesters across the nation denouncing Liang’s conviction?

As an Asian-American officer, Liang is part of only 4 percent of NYPD’s total workforce. Protesters point to an underrepresentation issue, noting Liang’s presence and conviction in the department as the exception, not the rule.

Many of Liang’s supporters are labelling him a scapegoat for NYPD’s misconduct. Through his conviction, NYPD can say they are delivering justice for the undue deaths of people of color. Protesters argue Liang is also a victim of systematic racism from this incident.

According to The Washington Post, 54 officers nationwide since 2005 have been indicted. Of the 54 officers, only 11 have been convicted, though 19 cases remain pending. The majority of these cases involve white officers and black victims. Statistics like these show a lack of accountability regarding police misconduct and the racial disproportionality of these cases.

To emphasize that point more clearly, take a look at a previous case of police misconduct regarding the NYPD. In 2014, officer Daniel Pantaleo placed 43-year-old Eric Garner in an 18-second chokehold — a maneuver banned by the NYPD — and refused to perform CPR after Garner said, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Despite the incident being videotaped, Pantaleo has not been indicted for his crime.

Liang, however, faces up to 15 years of jail time for discharging his weapon in a pitch-dark apartment hallway. Pantaleo got away for murder while Liang is being punished to the fullest extent of the law for his actions.

Asian-American communities have the right to speak out about this incident, as Liang is the first NYPD officer in a decade to receive a sentencing of over 10 years. Supporters are wielding signs with statements like “One tragedy, two victims” and “No Selective Justice” to protest the disproportionality of Liang’s case in the hundreds of NYPD-caused fatalities.

This isn’t to say Liang should be dismissed for the crimes he has committed. In the end, his actions resulted in the death of an innocent person, and that cannot be overlooked. His conviction is just one minor step in addressing accountability of police misconduct and unjust shootings. However, in the bigger picture, Liang is another victim of our racially-structured legal system — one that favors white privilege. The entire NYPD should be put to judgment for their unjust, aggressive policies that only further marginalize people of color.