Inside Day One of a New York City Police Killing Trial

By Alex Zimmerman |
January 26, 2016

nypd killing riceWhen police officers kill civilians, the chances of criminal prosecution are vanishingly small. No charges were brought against the Cleveland cop who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, for instance, nor the New York City officer who used a banned chokehold maneuver on Eric Garner—even though both incidents were captured on video. Among the thousands of fatal police shootings between 2005 and mid-2015, a tiny proportion—just 54—resulted in official charges, according to a Washington Post analysis.

But the people who stacked the benches of a Brooklyn courtroom Monday morning witnessed what could be an increasingly common sight in America: a criminal trial for a police officer who killed an unarmed civilian. The opening arguments in New York State Supreme Court centered on Peter Liang, an NYPD officer who shot and killed Akai Gurley, an innocent and unarmed black man, during a routine patrol of a Brooklyn housing project.

Around 11 PM on November 20, 2014, Gurley and his friend Melissa Butler were leaving her place at the Pink Houses, an East New York housing project. As was often the case, the building’s elevators seemed to be broken, so they decided to take the poorly-lit stairs from the seventh floor. Simultaneously, Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, were conducting what’s known as a “vertical patrol”—itself a controversial practice where police monitor crime by sweeping the building’s roof and staircases from top to bottom.

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