NEW YORK (AP) — Police-reform activists, who have come to expect disappointment any time an officer is accused in a killing, expressed surprise Friday over the conviction of a patrolman who shot an unarmed man in a housing project stairwell but said they don't necessarily see the case as a turning point in the national debate over police accountability.
"It's definitely movement in the right direction," said Lumumba Bandele, a demonstrator who attended nearly every day of the patrolman's trial. But, he added, "It's not a victory in the larger scale of having made significant advances. We have a backlog of cases that have yet to be investigated, much less indicted."
A jury in Brooklyn on Thursday found rookie Officer Peter Liang guilty of manslaughter in the 2014 death of Akai Gurley. Liang and his partner were on a patrol in the public housing development when Liang, who had drawn his weapon, fired a shot. The bullet ricocheted and struck the 28-year-old Gurley, who was walking down the stairs with his girlfriend. Liang said he had been startled by a noise and the shooting was an accident.
It was the first time in a decade a New York Police Department officer was held responsible for a line-of-duty killing. The outcome stood in stark contrast to many other cases around the country in which police have been accused of killing unarmed black men and boys.
A grand jury in Cleveland declined to indict a police officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been playing with a pellet gun outside a recreation center. A grand jury declined to indict an officer in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Jurors in Baltimore couldn't agree on a verdict for an officer accused of manslaughter in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while riding in the back of a police van.
In New York, a grand jury on Staten Island decided not to indict an officer in the 2014 chokehold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, whose dying words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for protesters.
Garner, who weighed 350 pounds and had asthma, was accused of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. He was placed in a chokehold by a policeman, Daniel Pantaleo, who was trying to get him to submit to an arrest. Their fatal encounter was recorded on video by a bystander.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said the Liang verdict had nothing to do with those other cases.
"There's no message here," he said. "This has nothing to do with Ferguson or Staten island or Baltimore or Cleveland or any other police killing."
The Liang case was different from many others that have captured public attention, involving allegations of recklessness rather than an excessive use of force.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose career as a civil rights activist has been largely built around protesting police brutality, said that, if anything, Liang's conviction illustrates a "contradiction" in the criminal justice system, where cases can get wildly different results, depending partly on how they are handled by prosecutors.
"One DA can get an indictment and convict on a guy who says it was an accident ... and another DA in the same period of time in the same city can't, after a guy who was choked to death in broad daylight on tape," Sharpton said, referring to Garner's death.
But the Garner case might not be over. Two police officers who were present for the fatal encounter were called before a federal grand jury in Brooklyn on Wednesday, according to two people who had knowledge of the testimony but asked not to be named because grand jury proceedings are secret.
Pantaleo has said he was applying a legal takedown maneuver called a seatbelt and didn't intend to hurt Garner.
Gurley's relatives said they hoped Liang's conviction would "send a message to all NYPD officers and police departments around the country and around the world that they can't kill and get away with it anymore." They said there are many more police officers who need to be held accountable.
Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, who was not criminally charged but testified in the trial, were fired after the verdict.