Last week’s conviction of NYPD officer Peter Liang, the first conviction of a NYPD officer for killing a civilian in more than a decade, is an important step forward for justice for Akai Gurley’s family and police accountability. However, it hardly represents equal justice for our communities with respect to policing, or an end to the preferential double standard that most officers have experienced when they brutalize or kill.
Significant police reforms are needed to ensure that police departments are adequately held accountable for what they do in our neighborhoods. Moreover, solutions for community safety beyond policing must also be advanced and implemented.
With sentencing pending and defense motions to dismiss the conviction in the works, the justice process is far from over in this particular case. However, the conviction demonstrates that justice can be advanced in these cases when criminal justice officials have the political will to hold officers accountable to the law. That is important to recognize, and Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson deserves support for doing his job in this case, what so many other district attorneys historically have failed to do.
However, Thompson’s successful conviction in this case does not change the historical, systemic problems that exist when local district attorneys handle these cases, as we saw in the killings of Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice and so many others. It’s also important to note that Thompson has not convened a grand jury in the killings of Shantel Davis, Kyam Livingston and other Brooklyn residents killed by police. The fact that the Liang conviction is such an anomaly makes clear that a special prosecutor remains just as necessary for these types of cases as it has always been.
The NYPD’s firing of Liang and his partner Shaun Landau is important in meeting the demands of Gurley’s family for justice. But those actions draw into sharper contrast the lack of action by the de Blasio administration and NYPD against officers responsible for killing Garner, Graham and others. The families of Garner and Graham, together with activists, have demanded the firing of those officers but instead there’s been excuses and deflection.
Although the NYPD will no doubt claim that the firings were made easier because of the conviction and the former officers’ tenuous positions as probationary rookies, a less-noticed firing last week demonstrates that the NYPD can fire officers when it wants to. Last week, the NYPD fired a lieutenant, Robert Sung, because of his involvement in alleged corruption. The department took action before a criminal trial or even administrative hearings because Sung was going to file for retirement.
The de Blasio administration and Commissioner Bill Bratton have claimed that they are awaiting the Justice Department process before taking disciplinary action against the officers responsible for killing Garner and Graham, but the NYPD fired the officer who killed Anthony Baez before he was indicted by the federal government. If this administration is serious, it will remove those officers from the NYPD.
Communities United for Police Reform has called for the de Blasio administration to enact zero tolerance for police brutality at the NYPD, meaning any officer who brutalizes a civilian would be removed from the department. The problem we continue to face with police brutality—that can too often be deadly—is perpetuated by the lack of accountability at the NYPD. Officers rarely face meaningful and timely accountability, and it sends a message to officers that abusive and brutal treatment of our community members does not result in serious consequences.
The de Blasio administration has relied on media announcements about new training and loosely defined “neighborhood policing,” but these announcements are no substitute for accountability. They may sound good and give the illusion of change when framed in the context of “police-community relations,” but the reality is that the core problem is not simply one of interpersonal relationships between officers and community members. Improved police-community relations would be a by-product of accountable, non-discriminatory policing. It isn’t the goal in and of itself.
We need real changes to policies and practices that negatively affect our communities, true accountability that is timely and meaningful, and zero tolerance for brutality.
Another critical reform is in the City Council. It should pass the Right to Know Act for accountability and transparency in New Yorkers’ most common interactions with the NYPD, protecting against unconstitutional searches and abusive treatment.
Police reform can no longer be a political campaign message. It is a life or death issue for our communities, and one that needs to be genuinely and comprehensively addressed with real reforms and leadership by elected and public officials to advance accountability.
Monifa Bandele is a member of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and a member of Communities United for Police Reform.