The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) believes that justice was served in the trial of former New York City Police Officer (NYPD) Peter Liang, who was convicted of one count of manslaughter and one count of official misconduct for the killing of Mr. Akai Gurley, an unarmed African American. Liang’s conviction is a reminder of the urgent need for systemic police reform—in New York City and across the nation. Indeed, trial testimony exposed critical gaps in the training, supervision, and accountability of NYPD officers and the need for fundamental reforms in how officers are prepared to interact with the communities they serve. This tragedy reinforces the need for training that focuses on how officers—especially those patrolling public housing—can create positive and collaborative relationships with the community, confront and overcome implicit (and sometimes explicit) racial bias, de-escalate potentially confrontational situations, and administer basic urgent care, including CPR, to victims of lethal force.
“The verdict in this case is just; however, the Liang trial has revealed more than it has resolved,” said LDF’s President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “There is a deep-seated problem in this country with the culture of policing, especially in communities of color. It’s not just about individual officers. We have a national crisis in policing that has not yet been solved, though effective solutions are, hopefully, near at hand.”
Like everyone else, police officers must be held accountable for their actions. However, individual indictments alone will not solve the crisis in policing. Police violence against communities of color occurs because the culture of policing permits it, and not only because of isolated factors such as the race of the officers involved. Unfortunately, many officers in New York City—and in jurisdictions across the country—who were involved in unjustified acts of lethal force have not even been indicted, let alone convicted.
Despite the strong passions surrounding this case, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson and his team appropriately sought justice in this matter. Their objectivity and prosecutorial acumen should serve as a model for district attorneys in other cities confronting similar police misconduct. We are hopeful that the Liang trial will encourage other prosecutors and juries to treat these cases with similar diligence and care.
“We hope the Gurley family can begin to heal after the trauma of Akai Gurley’s killing and the painful re-living of those details at trial,” said Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, LDF Senior Community Organizer. “After having achieved justice in Mr. Gurley’s case, we must now work to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.”
Mr. Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed African-American, was shot and killed by then-Officer Peter Liang on November 21, 2014, in the stairwell of the Louis H. Pink Houses public housing complex in Brooklyn. As the trial made clear, Liang and his partner—both inexperienced, rookie officers—were unfamiliar with local residents and entered Mr. Gurley’s public housing building on a “vertical patrol” with their guns drawn, despite the absence of any danger or justifiably perceived threat. These circumstances directly contributed to Mr. Gurley’s tragic death.
“As this case revealed, without sufficient cause, police officers should not have their guns drawn while patrolling the homes of families living in public housing,” said Angel Harris, LDF Assistant Counsel. “The assumption that officers will be ambushed in public housing dwellings stems from unjustified stereotypes about public housing residents, over ninety percent of whom are Black and Latino. In reality, the vast majority of public housing residents are hard-working, law-abiding families.”
For the past six years, LDF has been litigating a federal class action lawsuit, Davis v. City of New York, to reform certain police practices in New York City’s public housing. Last year, LDF, along with its co-counsel The Legal Aid Society, reached a settlement agreement in the Davis case, which revised the NYPD Patrol Guide and related training materials on “vertical patrols,” imposed new documentation requirements for all trespass arrests in public housing, and modified certain public housing rules concerning residents’ cooperation with police and the prohibited activity of “lingering.” In addition, the Davis case is now part of the court monitoring of the NYPD to achieve further reforms in training, supervision, disciplining, and monitoring.
The trial also revealed Officer Liang’s gross abdication of duty to provide CPR to Gurley after recklessly injuring him, which was another important reason for his conviction. We applaud the efforts of Gurley’s companion and neighbor who stood in to protect and serve Gurley when NYPD officers would not. We are also grateful for the leadership of Asian-American organizations, such as CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which held fast to the ideals of police reform and accountability, despite the challenging facts of this case.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.