May 26, 2016
By: Vivian Le
In November 2014, Peter Liang, a Chinese police officer in New York City, was patrolling the Louis H. Pink Houses with his partner when a sound startled him in a darkened stairwell, and he discharged his weapon. The bullet ricocheted off the wall and struck Akai Gurley, an unarmed African-American man, in the chest, killing him.
This incident occurred a few months after the choking death of Eric Garner by NYPD officers and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, which would spark the Black Lives Matter movement and turned national attention towards police brutality and accountability. In both the Garner and Brown cases, grand juries failed to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths. In the months after these two cases, there would be numerous others that would also rise to national prominence; many of them would also end in the same way: with no repercussions for the officers involved. Liang, on the other hand, was a subversion; in February 2015, he was indicted by a grand jury on the charge of manslaughter and later convicted of the charge on February 11, 2016.
Liang’s case is a rarity; he is the first NYPD officer in over a decade to be convicted in a line-of-duty shooting. For some, this verdict was viewed as a turning of the tide in the criminal justice system towards increased police accountability, but for others, especially those in the Asian community, they felt that Liang was being used as a scapegoat to appease the public in the midst of rising anti-police sentiment due to his minority status. White officers, they argued, had been granted greater leniency and consideration in their cases than Liang was being given in his.
Liang’s indictment and later conviction would provide the fuel for numerous protests in the Chinese and wider Asian community in New York City and across the United States.In March 2015, more than 3,000 people from the Chinese community marched in Brooklyn after Liang was indicted, and a further 15,000 people in New York, and several thousand other activists in other cities, organized rallies after he was convicted in February 2016. Counter-protests have also been organized by black activists and others, who feel that justice was served and Liang was rightfully convicted.
This ongoing discourse between the two groups raises a number of important questions. Is Peter Liang’s case merely a matter of police accountability? Liang had his finger on the trigger of his weapon, which was against police protocol for the situation he was in, and neither he nor his partner provided CPR assistance after Gurley was shot. His actions could be viewed as negligence and reckless endangerment of an innocent citizen so the charge and conviction were justified.
Or, instead, is it evidence of an underlying racial bias that holds officers of color more culpable than their white peers? Liang was a rookie officer who had only been with the NYPD for less than 18 months. Liang and his partner did not feel that their CPR training was adequate for the situation, which is why they did not administer CPR, but did call for an ambulance. Liang supporters argue that inadequate training and supervision from the NYPD led to Gurley’s death, which while a tragedy and an accident, was not a crime.
There are also Asian activists who support Liang’s conviction, though, and they are worried about the message being sent by those protesting it. By calling for leniency in this case, the parts of the Asian community who support Liang may be viewed as complicit in supporting the same police system that failed to indict white officers in more severe circumstances, such as Eric Garner or Michael Brown. This internal split may be indicative of a conflict about the Asian community’s role within the nation’s racial hierarchy, especially in relation to a perceived privilege over other minority groups.
On March 23, 2016, the DA presiding over the case, Kenneth Thompson, recommended that Liang be sentenced with probation and community service with no jail time, despite the fact that the manslaughter charge that Liang was convicted of usually carries a 5-to-15 year jail sentence. Akai Gurley’s family and supporters have expressed their frustration with this recommendation, saying that they were “outraged at District Attorney Thompson’s inadequate sentencing recommendation” and that it “sends the message that police officers who kill people should not face serious consequences.”
Liang was eventually sentenced to five years of probation and 800 community service hours on April 19, 2016, by Justice Danny Chun. Chun also reduced Liang’s original second-degree manslaughter charge down to criminally-negligent homicide. “Judge Chun’s sentencing decision today is an insult to the life of Akai Gurley, to me as his mother, to all families whose loved ones have been killed by police, and all New Yorkers,” said Sylvia Palmer, Akai Gurley’s mother, after the sentencing. The dichotomy between Liang’s original conviction and his now relatively lenient sentence only further complicates this issue.
There is no easy recourse in this situation, and the Asian American community itself remains split on this outcome with both #APIs4BlackLives and #Justice4Liang popping up on social media after Liang’s April 19 sentencing. Ultimately, discussions on police accountability and its relation to race need to become more nuanced and inclusive before any sort of progress came be made.
Vivian Le is currently a student at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Sociology and Psychology. She interns at the Thomas Merton Center as the digital media editor for the NewPeople Newspaper.