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by Peter Moskos

February 12, 2016

NYPD Officer Liang found guilty

Do I think Peter Liang wanted to kill Akai Gurley? No. Do I think Liang messed up so bad that he should be found criminally guilty of manslaughter and official misconduct for failing to help Mr. Gurley as he lay dying in a public housing stairwell?


But, as a side note, Liang is right about this:
He felt unqualified to perform CPR, as is required of an officer under such circumstances, because he received poor training at the Police Academy.
And I certainly don't think he (or anybody) should be given a long sentence without mens rea.


john mosby said...

Project dwellers can sleep soundly now that NYPD officers will no longer be roaming their stairwells....


Moskos said...

I don't think cops are going to stop patrolling public housing stairwells. At least I hope now.

I just can't get over the fact he pulled the trigger of his gun for no reason. It's inexcusable.

Adam said...

A high-strung rookie cop who went through this type of training is patrolling a dark stairwell with his gun drawn and hears a loud noise behind him, so he spins around in a panic and squeezes the trigger one time. Sadly, I find that not terribly surprising. When I was an academy trainee, I role-played a hostage for an active shooter training scenario being run for patrol officers. The cops were walking down the hall in a 4-person diamond formation, and (being the young smartass that I was) I stepped into the doorway with both hands raised and shouted "help me!" The cop closest to me (about 2 feet away) spun toward me and shot one time, hitting me in the forearm with a simunition round. That cop had his trigger finger at touch point (not on the trigger) while he was searching, and I don't doubt the same was true for Liang. So I don't buy the finger-on-the-trigger theory of recklessness. And while I think cops are often too quick to draw their guns as a general matter, I hardly think we can ascribe criminal recklessness to Liang for searching the stairwell with his gun drawn. So it comes down to his "decision" to pull the trigger, but I don't think there's a satisfying answer as to why he shot, other than to say he was scared (as he was trained to be) and he acted reflexively.

If I were a juror looking for proof of recklessness (required for a second-degree manslaughter conviction), I'd have some doubts about whether Liang was "aware of" and whether he "consciously disregard[ed]" a substantial and unjustifiable risk. If you commit a physical act reflexively -- the way you bring up your hands to catch something when someone unexpectedly tosses something to you -- do you have time to consciously consider the consequences of your actions? This is all way too esoteric for the average juror, but it gets at how the concept of criminal recklessness is supposed to function. If Liang had been patrolling with his gun pointed down and, when startled by a loud noise, fired a shot that went through the floor and killed someone, would the same charges be justified? I'm sure non-police/non-military folks would find it hard to believe anyone could "reflexively" shoot at another person, but when you've been put through endless training scenarios that teach you too shoot before you get shot yourself, it's easy to imagine.

Last point: criminal charges aside, nobody as high-strung as Liang should be a cop, and his failure to call for medical help immediately is inexcusable, but unless there was medical testimony that eliminating that delay would have saved the victim's life (akin to the testimony presented in William Porter's trial), I don't see how the jury could base a manslaughter conviction on that.

David Woycechowsky said...

Project dwellers can sleep soundly now that NYPD officers . . .

I think that it is NYPD Officers themselves who are, as a class, at the greatest risk from truly accidental (but reckless) police officer shootings like Liang's.

I share Professor Moskos' hope that he will not be punished too harshly.

In general, criminal punishments are too harsh these days, and that can be true even when a police officer is the defendant.

David Woycechowsky said...

In Baltimore, a defendant just got three years for reckless endangerment.

Anonymous said...

I can't see the conviction as unreasonable; it meets the elements of the crime for 2nd degree manslaughter. I do hope the sentence is mitigated by the factors involved and isn't an attempt to placate those who believe police get off too easy for perceived misconduct (as opposed to incompetence).

The police will still do verticals, I'm sure. Only half the people in those buildings want the police gone, the other half want them around all the time. Perhaps it might be a good idea to treat the stairwells like a walk in the bear-filled woods, though. Bring a bright flashlight and make plenty of noise.