Police killings resulting in no accountability have happened one after the other: Eric Garner in July, and Michael Brown in August. In both cases, grand juries convened by prosecutors returned no indictments of the officers involved. Public emotions are heightened, understandably, and rightfully so.
On the heels of those cases, in New York City there is another recent case of a police officer killing an unarmed Black man, which has yet to be resolved. This case has received less media attention, but it is especially egregious.
The ‘Tragic Accident’ of Akai Gurley’s Death at the Hands of a NYPD Patrol Officer
In late November Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old man, was walking in an apartment building stairwell with his girlfriend when a police officer, conducting a vertical patrol of the building, shot and killed him. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the shooting was a “tragic accident.” The New York City medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
Akai was doing nothing wrong. He was not suspected of a committing a crime.
The incident happened in Brooklyn and is now under investigation by the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.
In 2004 a similar case happened in Brooklyn. Timothy Stansbury, an unarmed teen, also going about the business of life in his apartment building, was shot and killed by a “startled” police officer. Then-District Attorney Charles Hynes convened a grand jury. That panel decided not to indict the police officer based on the evidence prosecutors presented. There was no accountability for the death of Timothy.
But as of January, Brooklyn has a new district attorney, Kenneth Thompson.
After Michael Brown and now Eric Garner, how will Thompson handle the wrongful-death case of Akai Gurley? Like his predecessor, will he convene a grand jury? Or will he charge the police officer? Pass the case to federal prosecutors?
The Reality of Justice and Politics
The district attorney’s office is politically charged. Thompson is a new politician and the newest of the five New York City district attorneys elected to office. Thompson has yet to cut his teeth on a high-profile police-killing case that is local but will be reported on nationally.
Like every other elected official, district attorneys seek and receive support from the general public as well as from special-interest groups like police unions.
Which will Thompson serve? The NYPD and its powerful union, or the people who put him in office based on his 2013 campaign pledge of equal and fair justice for all?
“If I have the honor of serving the people of Brooklyn as District Attorney, I will never forget who sent me there.” That is what Thompson said last year while campaigning for the office he now holds.
Looking Ahead and at the Past
If Thompson decides to charge the police officer in the death of Akai Gurley, or if he convenes a grand jury that indicts the police officer, then the case goes to trial.
For perspective, Bronx County District Attorney Robert Johnson convened a grand jury in the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Black man, by NYPD officers. The Bronx grand jury in that case returned an indictment. The trial was moved out of the Bronx, to upstate Albany, New York (three hours away from the city). That trial ended in the acquittal of the police officers.
The Bronx district attorney, who has been in office for more than 20 years, was criticized for his handling of that trial. Jurors said they had no choice but to acquit the police officers based on the law and the facts presented to them.
The borough of Brooklyn and the greater city of New York has experienced an overwhelming number of killings of unarmed Black or Latino men and women by police. The tense public atmosphere is not on Thompson’s side.
Let’s see how Thompson handles the wrongful death of Akai Gurley at the hands of a NYPD police officer. Will he buck the trend? Follow the pack?
This blog post, by Sharon Toomer, was originally published on BlackandBrownNews.com.