NYPD Cop Shoots Unarmed Man, Texts Union Rep Instead of Calling for Help


Akai Gurley's daughter.

Rookie NYPD cop Peter Liang texted his union representative and was "incommunicado for more than six and a half minutes" as Akai Gurley, the unarmed man he shot in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, lay dying.

Liang had been holding his gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other as he entered an unlit stairwell when he was startled by the noise of Gurley and his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, entering the stairwell one floor below. Liang claims his gun accidentally discharged, sending a ricocheting bullet into Gurley's chest.

The New York Daily News reports that in the crucial minutes following the shooting, Liang and his partner did not try to get medical attention for the grievously wounded man and could not be reached by either their commanding officer or the 911 dispatcher who fielded a call from a neighbor reporting gunshots. 

It gets worse. Sources told the Daily News that the text messages revealed the officers didn't know the exact address of the building they were in, and that "Deputy Inspector Miguel Iglesias, then the head officer of the local housing command, ordered them not to carry out such patrols, known as verticals." Iglesias added, "I want a presence on the street, in the courtyards—and if they go into the buildings they were just supposed to check out the lobby."

After the shooting, Liang was described as "panicked" and "a crying mess," which is an understandable human reaction when you have just shot someone whose one false move was taking the stairs after growing impatient with waiting for a slow moving elevator. However, if Liang indeed texted his union representative rather than calling for help, that demonstrates a calculated awareness that he was in deep trouble and his first priority was saving himself.

The Daily News cites court insiders as saying "while the shooting may have been a mishap, the cops' subsequent conduct can amount to criminal liability." A lawyer for the Gurley family hopes the case is at least presented to a grand jury and as Reason's Brian Doherty noted, political pressure is mounting for Liang to be prosecuted. Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has promised "an immediate, fair and thorough investigation."

In the meantime, Liang remains on "modified duty," protected from even an internal affairs investigation unless the D.A. presses charges against him. In a post earlier today, Reason's Ed Krayewski wrote about how police unions, like all public sector unions, circle the wagons in a crisis even if it means defending bad employees:

They can be fired, but not always. Many police departments, including New York's, have generous job protections for police officers. These privileges, masquerading as "due process," protect bad cops. Defenders of public unions say it isn't fair to fire a public employee merely for the appearance of impropriety, bias, or even corruption and criminality.

Serious police reform will require the cooperation of police unions, but Republicans generally refuse to take them on, lest they appear out of step with their "law and order" base, and many Democrats would rather avoid being seen as opponents of any public sector union. 

In a scathing piece on the police lobby at Vice, occasional Reason contributor Michael Tracey wrote:

What if their overriding mantras were something along the lines of "serve the community" instead of "get home from your shift alive"?

The only way to change this is through difficult, tedious governmental reform—not fancy speeches or racial sensitivity seminars—and the police lobby will ferociously oppose such efforts at every step.