When I first see a picture of Peter Liang, the NYPD officer recently indicted for the shooting death of Akai Gurley, my reactions are all over the map.
… He looks so familiar. He’s 27; he could be one of my brother’s friends. One of my friends, even. He could be a family friend or someone from my church.
… His parents — probably immigrants like mine. Later, I learn that they’re a cook and a garment worker who moved with their son from Hong Kong to the US when he was a child, who speak very little English. They live in Bensonhurst, a working-class neighborhood that’s become Brooklyn’s second Chinatown.
They must be so sad.
… He’s a police officer. I’ve never known an Asian American cop. I’ve seen a few in California, where Asian Americans have lived for generations and have had more time to get involved in civic life — politics, law enforcement — than in most other parts of the country. But I’ve never seen them elsewhere. I wonder about his experience on the force, his decision to enter a field where few of his kind have preceded him.
… He looks so young. He had been a cop for less than 2 years. He’s probably scared out of his mind.
… He should have known better. The NYPD trains its officers not to put their finger on the trigger of a gun unless they’re being threatened and ready to shoot. So why was his finger on the trigger? Why, when he heard someone — anyone — approaching, was his first instinct to shoot? Didn’t he know that he was trusted to protect a community, and by firing a literal shot in the dark, he was doing the opposite? Didn’t he know what the consequences could be? It was late November, when the grand jury verdict on Darren Wilson was imminent and all eyes were on Ferguson — and a grand jury in New York was hearing evidence regarding Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner. As a cop, surely he knew about these events, knew that tensions were high between police officers and the communities they served, knew that police were under heightened scrutiny. In those uneasy days, of all times, why did he decide to shoot?
And then why was his next response to panic? To not call in the shooting, to not call for medical help, nothing? To articulate a fear about his job instead of concern for the person he had just wounded? What was he thinking? If his responses to stress are impulsivity and panic, is this really the line of work he should have chosen?
… This is not going to help black-Asian relations in the US, which can already be contentious.
My feelings toward Peter Liang are complicated. So, too, is the landscape around his indictment.
On November 20, Akai Gurley and his girlfriend entered an unlit stairwell in the Brooklyn housing project where they lived and where Liang and his partner were on patrol. Liang fired a shot, which ricocheted off the wall and hit Gurley in the chest; Gurley died as the result of his wound. The details of the aftermath are cringeworthy at best: Liang and his partner argued for 4 minutes about whether to report the shooting; during this debate, Liang expressed concern that he was going to be fired; and he did not offer or summon medical help.
Two weeks ago, Liang was indicted for Gurley’s death — a surprise to many who had expected that, like Wilson and Pantaleo, the officer would not face legal consequences. At least 179 civilians have been killed by on-duty NYPD officers in the last 15 years; until this point, only 3 had ever been indicted. Liang is now the fourth.
News of his indictment has angered some Chinese Americans, particularly in New York. Some claim that Liang is being unfairly scapegoated. They argue that the city — and the nation — is hungry for an indictment after Wilson and Pantaleo walked free, and the Brooklyn district attorney is using Liang to satisfy their bloodlust. Others contend that Liang is being treated differently from his white colleagues who were not indicted; a White House petition bearing that argument has been signed over 122,000 times.
I can see where some of these folks are coming from. When Pantaleo killed Garner — using an illegal chokehold, captured on tape — Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, offered a blustery defense. In this case, however, Lynch released only a lukewarm statement in which he said little more than that Liang is entitled to due process. Where’s the character defense here? Does the fact that Liang’s parents are immigrants, that he does not come from a long line of New York City cops, that he does not have a dad or uncles or grandfathers who served on the force and worked alongside the prosecutors who decide whether or not to indict, mean that he missed out on the benefits that many of his fellow officers receive? Is it easier to not back him up because he is so “other,” because the likelihood of pushback from the community is smaller than if he were any other race?
I see all of these concerns. Like many others, I wonder how this case would’ve played out if Liang were white. Would the union — or the public — have offered more support? Would the DA have been less inclined to prosecute?
But at the same time, I have to ask: Do any of these issues mean that Liang shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions?
None of them change the fact that he fatally shot an unarmed civilian when there was no credible threat — and, additionally, that he hesitated to report the shooting, that he did not call for medical help, that he expressed more concern about his job than the person he just mortally wounded. Anyone in these circumstances should be held accountable — and all the more if that person is a police officer, someone given a significant amount of power and trusted to protect the community.
The fact that other police officers haven’t been held to the same standard doesn’t mean that we should stop upholding it. That logic leads us down a dangerous path: Do we not hold any police officers accountable, then? Do we allow cops to act with impunity, to kill civilians in whatever circumstances they choose? I don’t know about you, but that’s not a world I want to live in — not because I think cops are bad or untrustworthy, but because we’ve seen plenty of examples throughout history of how unchecked power leads to corruption and abuse.
No, the standard needs to be upheld. And if that starts with Liang, then so be it. As Cathy Dang, executive director of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, said, “Peter Liang being Asian only means that all cops need to be held accountable, regardless of skin color. We should use this indictment as fuel for us to organize even harder to hold the white officers who’ve killed accountable.”
In this tragic case, with its complicated racial and sociopolitical dynamics, the path to justice is not to let Liang off the hook simply because other cops have been. The path to justice is to hold him responsible — and to see that all other police officers are as well.