Earlier this month, rookie NYPD Officer Peter Liang was convicted of manslaughter for the death of Akai Gurley. This punishment is being hailed as a landmark conviction in the fight to stop police brutality and the repeated shootings of unarmed Black men by the police. However, Gurley’s death differs from many other shootings because Officer Liang did not intentionally shoot, but rather accidentally discharged his weapon, which ricocheted into Mr. Gurley. Also controversially, Liang was only a rookie, and was paired with another rookie and placed in one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City. He wasn’t properly trained in when to use his weapon, and didn’t have a superior officer present to direct him.
While I am happy there is finally some degree of justice for a shooting of an unarmed Black man by a police officer, I am not happy the NYPD has made Officer Liang — an Asian American — the scapegoat for hundreds of shootings perpetrated by white officers. In this case, rather than seeking real justice, it feels as though the NYPD is going after a minority officer to “make up” for hundreds of unjust killings.
Since 1999, there have been more than 175 fatal shootings in New York City by on-duty officers. Of these, only three have led to indictments. Before the conviction of Liang, only one shooting led to a conviction.
That case, the 2003 shooting of Ousmane Zongo, involved a plainclothes officer intentionally shooting an unarmed Black man in the back four times. That officer, Bryan Conroy, is white and was convicted of criminally negligent homicide. He was sentenced to probation. Now, Officer Liang is being sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for accidentally discharging his weapon.
In a perfect world, justice would be served for every unjust shooting, but unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Eric Garner’s murderer was let off the hook in the same city, despite a video showing him violating a protocol by putting Garner in a chokehold and killing him. Even other accidental police shootings, like the shooting of Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit, led to charges being dropped and jail avoided. In the case of Jones, a white Detroit police officer killed a seven-year-old girl in her sleep during a SWAT raid on the wrong house. His charges were dropped, despite the fact that he had accidentally killed a young girl. The only difference between Liang and the DPD officer is their race.
I’d like to stress that I believe Peter Liang should go to prison. Anyone who kills another person, criminal or cop, should face justice. The problem is this shooting is another example of racial discrimination against people of color by the justice system. This sentiment is highlighted by the New York City City Comptroller John Liu, who said, “In the wake of unfortunately so many deaths of unarmed Black men, some cops gotta hang. The sentiment in the Asian community is: It’s easier to hang an Asian, because Asians, they don’t speak up.” And that is exactly what is going on in this case.
Justice is necessary in our society. However, racial bias disguised as racial justice is not acceptable. Don’t be so quick to celebrate the conviction. Had Peter Liang been white, this case could have gone much differently. Maybe this is the first step in a long road to equality, but most likely, this is just another act of racism by the justice system.
I won’t celebrate the conviction of Liang, but I will celebrate if one day, the officers like the ones who killed Eric Garner and Aiyana Jones — white men who knew what they were doing — face the same standard of justice as Peter Liang.
Kevin Sweitzer is an Editorial Board Member.