After months of demonstrations calling for justice, a New York City Police Department officer has been indicted for the fatal shooting of unarmed African American Akai Gurley last November. A grand jury elected to charge Officer Peter Liang with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault and official misconduct. Liang was reportedly carrying his gun in his left hand and a flashlight in his right when he opened the door to a dimly lit stairwell he was patrolling in a Brooklyn housing project. His gun went off, hitting Gurley as he walked down the stairs. Police Commissioner William Bratton has described the shooting as an “unfortunate accident” and said Gurley was “totally innocent.” Liang did not respond to police radio contact for more than six minutes and texted his union representative for advice. A neighbor ended up calling for the ambulance that rushed Gurley to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. We get reaction to the indictment from Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back from break, we’ll be speaking to the college roommate of Kayla Mueller. But first, we’re turning to this news here in New York. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, after months of protests calling for justice, a New York City police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man last November has been indicted by a grand jury. Officer Peter Liang faces charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault and official misconduct. Liang was reportedly carrying his gun in his left hand and a flashlight in his right hand when he opened the door to a stairwell he was patrolling in a Brooklyn housing project. His gun went off, and the bullet hit Akai Gurley, who was walking down the stairs. Police Commissioner William Bratton has described the shooting as an “unfortunate accident” and said Gurley was, quote, “totally innocent.”
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Daily News reported Liang did not respond to police radio contact for more than six minutes after the shooting. Instead, he texted his union representative for advice. A neighbor ended up calling for an ambulance that rushed Akai to the hospital, where he was declared dead. All of this comes after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the officer who put Eric Garner into a fatal chokehold and as a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, chose not to indict the officer who shot and killed Mike Brown.
For more, we’re joined by Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Were you surprised by—you know, we’re always having you on: “Were you surprised by the non-indictment? Were you surprised by the non-indictment?” Well, now this officer has been indicted. Were you surprised by this?
VINCENT WARREN: No, nothing surprises me when it comes to indictments of police officers. This was a case that should have and could have been indicted. There’s no question about it. As Juan was talking about earlier, this is where the police are saying this was an accidental shooting. And the real question is: Can the prosecutor show probable cause in the grand jury, under manslaughter, to say that there was a risk, that he knew, Peter Liang knew, what the risk was and disregarded it; or, in criminally negligent homicide, did he not know that there was a risk, but should have? And anybody, you know, with any sense would say, if you’ve got a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other hand, and you’re trying to open a door, that terrible things can happen. There’s a risk there. So this was relatively easy to indict, from my perspective. But what I think it shows is what happens when you have a prosecutor that really is willing to take those political risks of putting these cases to grand juries, unlike what happened in Staten Island or what happened in Ferguson, where the prosecutors really just punted on the whole thing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vince, I wanted to ask you specifically about the issue of the prosecutors, because, obviously, the old adage is a district attorney can indict a ham sandwich, and if they choose not to, they generally don’t. But in Brooklyn, there’s a new district attorney, Ken Thompson, an African American, who has not only become the district attorney, but has also begun to re-examine scores of cases from the past of people who were arrested and convicted on false testimony, false evidence, and now is basically overturning a lot of those cases. So, it’s not a surprise that this kind of district attorney would take a much more active stand on an issue like this.
VINCENT WARREN: No, I think that’s right. This is the type of district attorney that you want to have, particularly in places like New York, particularly with the police department acting the way that it does. This is a district attorney that is actually thinking about the entire community and what the community needs and about fairness and justice. Now, I don’t generally side with prosecutors. I have a criminal defense background. But, you know, you have to call it like you see it. A lot of prosecutors, particularly the other prosecutor in Staten Island, would not have approached this case or those other issues in the same way. And so, we don’t want to pretend that the system is fixed because they have one indictment, you know, that a broken clock even works twice a day. But this is a step in the right direction.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the young man who filmed the police encounter with Eric Garner in Staten Island has been arrested again. Ramsey Orta filmed the police placing Garner in a chokehold and pinning him down while Garner kept on saying, “I can’t breathe.” It was a film from his cellphone. After Orta’s video went viral, he and his wife were both arrested on separate charges and said they face harassment by police. On Tuesday, Orta was arraigned, along with his mother and his brother, after police say they caught him on video selling drugs to an undercover officer. A police source told the New York Daily News, quote, “He took the video. Now we took the video.”
VINCENT WARREN: Deeply troubling for a number of reasons. It is almost unimpeachable to say that the police department is completely targeting this man because he got the goods on the police with respect to Eric Garner. There’s no question about that. It is easy to fabricate information, which the police may have done. It is also easy—if you follow somebody long enough, you will be able to find out that they did something wrong. The point—the question really is: Are our police resources best set forth by having the police trying to target one person that made them look bad, or are there other crimes that they should be out there trying to solve and doing it in an accountable way? This is problematic for me.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vince, I just wanted to ask you quickly about the relationship between the officer and the police union here, where he was actually, rather than running to see the injuries to the man he had shot, he spent six minutes—
AMY GOODMAN: Or calling the ambulance.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —or calling the ambulance—he goes to text his—the police union, the PBA, to get an idea, counsel, on what he should be doing.
VINCENT WARREN: Yeah, if you believe the police narrative that this was an accident, that’s the most problematic piece, because what actually—you know, from the reports, after the gun went off, he went back up to the roof, started texting his union reps, didn’t call an ambulance. Mr. Gurley and his girlfriend went downstairs, where Mr. Gurley collapsed, and somebody else had to call the ambulance. This is a huge problem. And it doesn’t make sense to me that someone who accidentally shot someone would decide their first course of action would be “Let me get my union rep on the phone before I actually do my duty to figure out did I hit somebody, did I hurt somebody, how can I make that better.”
AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren, thanks so much for being with us, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. And of course we’ll continue to follow this story.
When we come back, we’re going to Portland, Oregon, where we’ll be joined by the college roommate of Kayla Mueller, who just died in Syria. Stay with us.