Violence

Were Some (Or All) of the Empire State Building Bystanders Shot By Cops?

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Jeffrey Johnson

The murder of a 41-year-old import company vice president outside the Empire State Building, and the subsequent wounding of nine people when police closed in on the apparent murderer, doesn't appear to be a high point in public safety. But would it matter if some or all of the bystanders were shot by cops rather than the original shooter? 

With the caveat that first reports are usually wrong, the story appears to be that Jeffrey Johnson, 58, approached his former boss Steven Ercolino and shot him in the head. After that, Johnson put his .45 caliber handgun into a bag and walked away, but he was tailed by a construction worker who notified two police officers assigned to patrol the Empire State Building (per a post-9/11 New York Police Department policy of providing security around major landmarks). When the cops approached Johnson, he drew his weapon again and the cops shot and killed him. It was at this point that the nine bystanders were wounded. 

The murder of Ercolino seems straightforward. Johnson had apparently raised workplace harassment complaints and in any event had recently been laid off. But the exchange of gunfire with the cops is more complicated. There are differing accounts of whether Johnson actually fired, and the eight-round clip in his gun is said to have contained one round when it was searched by police. 

Assuming at least one round was used to shoot Ercolino, that leaves six rounds Johnson may have fired in the shootout. To wound nine people, Johnson would have had to hit a civilian with every bullet, and at least three of them would have continued flying and hit second targets. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already speculated that some of the bystanders were hit by police fire. 

As noted above, the facts are not all in. There is surveillance camera footage of both Ercolino's murder and the subsequent shootout, and ballistics testing will settle most or all of these questions. And even by the most hands-off definition of a nightwatchman state, stopping a murderer who is walking around armed on a crowded street, probably not in the best of moods, seems to fall within the purview of proper police action. 

Still, the construction worker was apparently able to follow Johnson, whose weapon was in a bag, without incident. For me this sad story comes back, as so many sad stories do, to the scene in First Blood when Richard Crenna advises the cops to let Rambo get away, defuse the situation, and pick him up in a few weeks, "working at a car wash in Seattle." (In this case they might have had to wait 99 weeks until Johnson's extended unemployment benefits ran out.)