Last week, a NY policeman shot an unarmed man in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. The reporting of the case is worth adding to past experiences.
The NY Times headline read, "Officer’s Errant Shot Kills Unarmed Brooklyn Man." Now, I'm not an English professor. Perhaps, an English professor would tell me that headline doesn't explicitly mean it was an innocent mistake. But for just about every other reader, that is how it would be interpreted.
The caption of the photo at the top of the article states, "...in this dim stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, Officer Peter Liang accidentally killed Akai Gurley..." The "dark hall" or "dark stairwell" was a standard part of the media coverage of the event. As well as the description of it as an "accident" - not "an alleged accident" or something else indicating less than total certainty.
The Times article says that only 12 hours after the shooting the police commissioner "announced that the shooting was accidental and that the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers." It's not necessarily unreasonable after such a short amount of investigation for the commissioner to say it "seemed to be" an accident, but isn't it presumptuous for the Times to use those particular words to suggest there could be that much confidence in the case already? (In fact, the Times mentions the investigation "continued," but doesn't question such a definitive pronouncement in that context.)
I couldn't help wondering how the media would have presented it if the roles had been reversed. Suppose, it was late in the evening and Sam Jones had to leave his apartment to go to his third-shift job. Suppose Sam was nervous: It was night in a poor neighborhood. He knew the stairwell would be dark. There had been a shooting in a nearby lobby just a few days ago. So, Sam took his licensed gun with him. He nervously locks his apartment door hoping having his back turned away from the dark hall won't result in an attack. He starts down the stairs, but hears someone coming up toward him. In the darkness, he has no idea it's police. One of the officers moves abruptly, making Sam more frightened. Sam takes out his gun just in case. In his fright, he holds the gun too tightly and the trigger is set off. The bullet hits one of the policemen.
Would the media reports consistently tell you the stairwell was dark so Sam had no way to know it was police, but had every reason to be afraid? Would the media consistently take Sam's claim it was an accident at face value, and treat him sympathetically as a blameless person? Would the media make a special point of telling you it was a legal, licensed gun? Would the media carry side-stories about the dangers that third-shift workers face going out at night? Would there be side-stories about the lack of adequate measures to make sure housing projects are properly lit?
The Times article describes the two policemen as being on a patrol - not responding to a report of a violent crime. So, why was the gun out of the holster? The Times refers to "a longtime police practice of officers drawing their weapons when patrolling stairwells in housing projects." So, the policeman was not necessarily in a state of understandable fright, as I imagined a resident such as Sam might have been. In that sense, it's not as simple an accident as it might have been. The policeman may have been walking with his gun out and the safety off just because he was in a housing project - as if all project residents should do that all the time. How would the media have handled it if Sam had accidentally shot someone while holding his gun in his hand, because Sam always held his gun in his hand every time he used the stairs?
The Times makes a point of telling us, in what did not seem to me to be a critical way, that the policeman had been on the job for less than 18 months. If Sam had accidentally shot someone because he was very nervous - because he had only recently started living in a housing project - would the media present that as a reason we should be more understanding of his mistake?
The media has carried portrayals of the shooting being an accident resulting from trying to open the stairwell door while holding the gun. If this is a reasonable result of doing those two things at once, then someone who's not in the media might ask whether it is inappropriate for a policeman to do the two together (at least when not rushing to the scene of a crime). The Times reported that only one of the two policemen had his gun out, so it would have been possible for the policeman who wasn't holding a gun to open the door. Perhaps, not taking a simple precaution such as that could be the basis for an involuntary manslaughter or "reckless endangerment" case.
While the Times gave various indicators in the 39 paragraphs of the article that the police described it as an accident and other descriptions suggestive of an accident, the Times never tells readers what a witness at the scene (Mr. Gurley's girlfriend) had to say about the events. If his girlfriend had said it wasn't an accident, that would not prove it was true. However, if his girlfriend told the media it had been an accident, that might be more credible than statements by the policemen involved in the shooting. If the girlfriend told the media she didn't want to make a statement, it would have been worth noting that in the article. The absence of any reference to a witness statement strikes me as odd. If nothing else, it might mean the media may simply accept what the police say and see no need to mention independent witnesses (except perhaps if the witness insists on giving a very different account).
Late in the article, the Times quotes the police commissioner, "As in all cases, an officer would have to justify the circumstances that required him to or resulted in his unholstering his firearm.” Yet, the article presents no claims by the police that any justification was presented. However, the Times does not explicitly point out this conflict.
Even assuming everything happened exactly as the police say, even if that means we can already say no criminal indictment is appropriate, and even if we can't say for sure at this time disciplinary penalties are needed, based on the above police statements, how can it not be said a disciplinary hearing would be advisable?