Conviction of ex-NYPD Officer Peter Liang: A Sign of Change for Police Accountability or A PR Stunt at the Expense of the “Model Minorities”?

As a native Asian-American New Yorker who has been advocating for police accountability for almost a decade, I am conflicted and have mixed feelings about the police shooting of Akai Gurley and the criminal charges filed against former NYPD Officer Peter Liang. On one hand, if I praise the jury for holding Liang accountable for the death of Gurley, am I disgracing my community by not supporting a fellow Asian American? But if I say Liang was unfairly prosecuted and used as a scapegoat, how am I any different than those who cried ‘all lives matter’ in response to the Black Lives Matter movement? Am I a hypocrite regardless which position I take? Logic tells me that I can support both my fellow Asian-American brothers and sisters, and the Black community and its fight against racial injustice. The two are not mutually exclusive and if anything, they should go hand in hand. I have evidence that it can. Just a few weeks ago in celebration of Black History Month and the Lunar New Year, I shared this collage of Asian-Americans protesting for equality for the Black community.


So then why do I feel like I have to choose a side? This isn’t Star Wars; it’s not like choosing between the dark and the light side. End of the day, neither police misconduct nor racial injustice should be tolerated.

Peter Liang was charged with second degree manslaughter. Under New York criminal law, a person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when he recklessly causes the death of another person. The legal definition of reckless is to demonstrate indifference to consequences under circumstances involving danger to the life or safety of others. Was Liang reckless? He was. He patrolled the stairwell with his finger on the trigger of the gun. He knew of the risk that the gun could accidentally go off. Every day, there are countless news stories about unintentional gun firings. In a dark stairwell, he could have easily tripped, accidentally discharging the gun. There’s a reason why it’s against NYPD policies to conduct a routine patrol with gun drawn.

If you are not convinced yet, look at his behavior afterwards. Liang runs down the stairs to look for the bullet. He doesn’t find the bullet; instead, he sees Gurley on the ground, obviously hurt and his girlfriend trying to administer CPR. Liang does not stop to provide any assistance nor does he call for help. How can you argue that Liang did not act with indifference to Gurley’s life? I think the jury came to the right conclusion and Liang should be held accountable for Akai Gurley’s death regardless of Liang’s race/ethnicity.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder, “If Peter Liang was white, would he have been prosecuted? Would a young, white male officer who unintentionally shot an unarmed black man share the same fate as Liang?” Based on recent history, the answer is unequivocally ‘no’. None of the white officers who killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice faced any criminal charges. Shockingly (or sadly unsurprisingly), the only officer facing disciplinary charges in these three cases is Sgt. Kizzy Adonis—a black female officer. She was the supervising officer at the scene of Eric Garner’s death. I don’t know enough about her involvement. Maybe these charges are justified and she should be held accountable, but where are the charges against the white officer who choked Garner to death?

Apparently, only under a very rare and specific set of circumstances will white officers face prosecution for an unjustified shooting. The formula: (1) there must be video of the incident; (2) the video shows that the victim has his back towards the officer and therefore, indisputably posing no threat to the officer, and (3) the officer shoots anyway. The police shootings of Oscar Grant III, Walter Scott, and Laquan McDonald fall into this category. On New Year’s Day 2009, former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot a train rider, Oscar Grant III. Grant was lying face down and restrained when Mehserle pulled the trigger. Once video footage of the incident was disseminated to media outlets, Mehserle was criminally charged, and eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Walter Scott, a 50 year old black man, was shot and killed by Officer Michael Slager. Slager was not charged until a video surfaced showing that Scott had his back toward Slager when Slager pulled the trigger eight times. Another example is the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. The dashcam video showed that McDonald was facing and walking away from the officers when Van Dyke shot him 16 times in a span of 15 seconds. Despite this obviously needless shooting, Van Dyke walked free for nearly a year before facing criminal charges. Prosecutors pursued criminal charges against Van Dyke only after a court ordered the release of the video to the public. Common theme – none of these officers, whose actions were more malicious than the accidental (but reckless) actions of Peter Liang, faced criminal charges until after videos were released.

While racial discrimination does not negate Liang’s reckless actions nor should it relieve him from serving his sentence, we cannot deny that it’s part of this tragic story. Look at the disparate treatment and support Liang received from the police union compared to white officers. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) typically fills the courtroom to show their support for officers facing prosecution. During Liang’s trial, there were just two older PBA members in jumpsuits at the courthouse and Pat Lynch the head of the PBA was nowhere to be found. Contrast that image with the PBA’s action after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo, the officer that choked Eric Gardner to death.  Lynch held a press conference. Along his side were over a dozen PBA members in their suits and ties. Lynch took time to talk about what a wonderful person Pantaleo is and called him “the model of what we want a police officer to be.” (Really? The model police officer is a seasoned officer who couldn’t tell (or didn’t care) that he was choking someone to death?)

Let’s face it, if Liang was a white officer, the prosecutors would not have pursued criminal charges against him. And on the off chance that they tried, the police union would have been all over it. Quoting from Justice Murphy’s dissenting opinion in Korematsu v. United States, “[r]acial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting….”

I’ve read a few articles expressing opinions that Liang’s conviction marks a critical change in police accountability. I want to believe that, I really do, but I won’t be convinced until I see a white officer criminally charged for an unjustified shooting where there is no video evidence.


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