Early in the morning of January 24, 2004, Timothy Stansbury Jr. and his friend Terrence Fisher were enjoying a birthday party in a friend’s apartment when they left to retrieve additional compact discs (Fisher was the party DJ). They took to the roof, a technically prohibited but commonly used shortcut for residents moving within the buildings of the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. They picked up the CDs at Fisher’s apartment, were joined by another companion and headed back up the stairs to return to the party.
Just before 1 a.m., the threesome reached the top of the stairwell, with 19-year-old Stansbury in the lead. As he arrived at the door leading to the roof, it swung open from the outside, and a single bullet was fired into his chest, landing between his ribs and cutting through all three lobes of his right lung. He tumbled down the stairs, bleeding profusely. The high school senior died less than three hours later.
The shooter was Officer Richard S. Neri Jr., an 11-year veteran of the New York Police Department. Neri and his partner, Officer Jason Hallik, had been conducting a routine “vertical patrol” of the development, with one officer opening the door from the roof and the other checking the stairwell for suspicious activity. As he approached the door, Neri had his 9-millimeter gun loaded and raised, with his finger on the trigger. Hallik pulled the door open, and Neri fired. (Neri would reportedly state to a grand jury that he fired accidentally after being startled and could not actually remember raising his weapon.)
The impact of Neri’s bullet on a family and a community is captured in the documentary Bullets in the Hood, codirected by Stansbury’s best friend, Fisher. Fisher, ironically, was already working on a film about neighborhood shootings–motivated by the gun violence that had claimed the lives of seven friends prior to Stansbury. In the documentary, the raw pain of a community torn apart is on display, and Fisher himself struggles to come to terms with the death of a close friend–this time, at the hands of the police.
From the moment that the trigger was pulled, the shooting by the police of an unarmed Black male followed a familiar trajectory as the family and community expressed sorrow and outrage. But this time, it seemed there was a twist.
The following day, NYPD Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly stated that there appeared to be “no justification for the shooting,” adding that the incident compelled the agency to “take an in-depth look at our tactics and training.”
Kelly’s description of the Stansbury shooting as unjustified marked a sharp break from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration, which reflexively backed the NYPD and at times sought to undermine support for shooting victims. In 2000, for example, Giuliani unsealed the juvenile record of Patrick Dorismond, a Black security guard, after he was shot and killed by an undercover detective, Anthony Vasquez. Dorismond was unarmed and had taken offense when Vasquez propositioned a crack-cocaine sale, leading to a scuffle and close-range shooting.
In the days after the shooting, along with unsealing Dorismond’s juvenile record, Giuliani argued to the press that the victim was no “altar boy,” leading to a furor when it was discovered that Dorismond had been an altar boy and attended the same private Catholic school in Brooklyn as Giuliani.
Still, despite the contrast in post-shooting messages sent by the Giuliani and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administrations in the Dorismond and Stansbury cases, the end results were nearly identical. Grand juries cleared the involved officers, families filed wrongful death suits against the city in civil court, and the city eventually paid hefty settlements ($2.25 million to relatives of Dorismond and $2 million to Stansbury’s family).
City Councilmember Charles Barron, who represents the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York and has been a longtime critic of policing activities in communities of color, argues that the differences between Giuliani and Bloomberg are of rhetoric and access–not policy.
“Giuliani inflamed the situation; he would try to place blame on the victims,” Barron comments. “Bloomberg, on the other hand, puts you to sleep. He says the right things, and they [Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly] meet with leaders in the Black community. But the end results, as seen when looking at Dorismond and Stansbury, are the same. No one is held accountable.” Nearly three years after killing Stansbury, Neri was suspended for 30 days by Commissioner Kelly and stripped of his gun: “A little slap on the wrist,” scoffs Barron.
Compiling a database of media accounts, ColorLines determined that Dorismond and Stansbury were two of 88 shooting fatalities of civilians by the NYPD from January 2000 to April 2007. In order to corroborate our project’s findings, ColorLines filed a Freedom of Information Request to the NYPD in May requesting such data, but by press time had still not received the information.
New York City consistently has the highest number of shooting deaths by police in the country, an average of 12 every year. The city also has substantially disproportionate killing of Black people, who make up 26 percent of the population but represented 66 percent of those killed by police.
Perhaps the most striking data of the period concerns the fates of active officers, on or off duty, found to have fatally shot civilians. Including all shootings–even cases where victims were unarmed–only one officer was convicted of wrongdoing. In 2005, Judge Robert H. Straus found Officer Bryan Conroy guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the 2003 death of Ousmane Zongo, a West African immigrant and art restorer who rented a storage room at a Chelsea warehouse where the NYPD was conducting a raid targeting a counterfeit CD and DVD operation. A jury trial had previously deadlocked when considering the case.
According to the judge, Zongo–who had no criminal record or involvement in the counterfeit ring–emerged from his room and encountered Conroy, who was guarding a stack of CDs. In response, Conroy, who was dressed as a mail carrier, assumed a combat stance by raising his weapon and pointing it at Zongo. According to Conroy’s testimony, Zongo lunged at him and then fled. Conroy, who acknowledged that he knew Zongo was unarmed, chased him for 50 yards and claimed he was forced to shoot Zongo four times during a struggle for his gun. Ballistics evidence indicated that the bullets hit Zongo’s body and traveled downward–contradicting Conroy’s testimony that he fired from the hip–and that at least one bullet hit Zongo in the back.
Still, although Judge Straus stated that the NYPD conducted the raid in a haphazard manner, and he determined that Conroy’s actions were criminal, his sentence for Conroy was lenient–five years probation and 500 hours of community service, versus the four years in prison he could have received. (After the judge’s ruling, Conroy was fired by the NYPD.) In 2006, as a result of a civil case, the city paid $3 million to Zongo’s relatives to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
In the opinion of Delores Jones-Brown, interim director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College, jurors are hesitant to convict officers because of deeply held assumptions about law enforcement. “People think, ‘We have to believe the cops, ‘cause they’re here to protect us.’ Most laypeople aren’t going to be critical of their actions.”
Another contentious issue regarding convictions of officers involves the role of the district atttorney. In New York City, there is a general feeling among police critics that because of close ties to the NYPD, the DA doesn’t present strong arguments to grand juries, who ultimately decide whether a case goes to trial or not. Because grand jury testimony is sealed, and lawyers for the victims aren’t given access to the proceedings, there is little direct evidence to back this up–but the secrecy only fuels speculation of collusion.
“If you can have the trial jury public, why not have the grand jury public?” asks Barron. In the wake of the Sean Bell shooting–where cops fired 50 rounds at three unarmed men, killing Bell on the night before his wedding–attorney Norman Siegel and others asked for an independent prosecutor, afraid that the Queens’ DA was too close to the police. The DA’s office, in turn, reiterated its independence, and eventually a grand jury indicted three of the officers involved in the shooting–for manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment, though not for depraved indifference, as some critics had hoped, which could have drawn a stiffer sentence. No date for the trial has been set.
During the Zongo trial, Judge Straus was especially troubled by Conroy’s explanation that he was following police protocol by pointing his gun at the unarmed Zongo. ‘’Is that true? Is that what police are trained to do?’’ Justice Straus asked, according to The New York Times. ‘’In the city of New York, how can a police officer be trained to communicate with people by taking a combat stance?”
In response, NYPD officials stated to the press that officers were explicitly trained not to deal with unarmed civilians by assuming a combat stance, a policy that is acknowledged by Noel Leader, cofounder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and a recently retired NYPD officer. “We’re taught to keep our finger on the side strap, not the trigger,” explains Leader, who believes that in the Stansbury case, like Zongo, Officer Neri should have been indicted.
“This was criminal negligence,” Leader says. “Neri is in a residential building that he knows is occupied, and he’s not in pursuit of a criminal. Yet he’s got his gun out, it’s pointed up and his finger is on the trigger. If he had even tripped, he would have shot. That is totally against our training.”
But a look at the practice of vertical patrols in public housing developments reveals that what is taught in theory and what is practiced on duty don’t always correspond.
In the fall-out from the Stansbury killing, there was a discussion by Commissioner Kelly and groups like 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care of revising the procedure for conducting vertical patrols, which was ultimately shelved. The section of the NYPD Patrol Guide that covers vertical patrols doesn’t explicitly address whether officers should have their weapons drawn, stating only that they should conduct patrols of assigned locations and “take appropriate police action.” The freedom to decide when it is appropriate to draw a weapon is left to the officer.
The use of this judgment has led some cops to interpret mere human presence in occupied buildings as a sufficient threat to warrant a potentially deadly response. Several months after the Stansbury shooting, Brooklyn firefighters responding to a call of a stuck elevator in a public housing development in East New York climbed to the roof to shut off the power. As they walked through the door to the roof, they were met by two cops on a vertical patrol whose guns were aimed directly at them. According to the fire department, the cops explained that they had pointed their guns at them “because they had heard someone coming up the stairs.”
In response, the fire department sent a safety bulletin to every firehouse in the city, alerting them to “loudly announce that they are members of the Fire Department” when entering stairwells or the roof and to remember that “this situation”–of finding NYPD guns suddenly trained on them–”can occur anytime day or night.”
New York City’s violent crime rate has dropped precipitously in the last decade; in 2006, there were 7.3 murders recorded per 100,000 residents–down from 30.7 in 1990. But despite a lower crime rate, the number of fatal shootings of civilians has remained steady. Even more perplexing, the number of bullets fired by the NYPD increased dramatically from 2004 to 2005, according to a copy of the 2005 Firearm Discharge Report. In 2005, cops fired 616 bullets, in contrast to 352 the previous year. Though there is no clear explanation as to why this occurred, in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting, the NYPD hired the RAND Corporation to conduct a study of their firearm procedures and training, which will be published in the fall.
On May 18, 2007, an unarmed immigrant, Fermin Arzu, was fatally shot in the Bronx neighborhood of Longwood by an off-duty officer, Raphael Lora.
Arzu, a Honduran of African descent, crashed his vehicle at about 11:40 p.m. into a parked car near the home of Lora, who raced out in plainclothes, armed with a 9-millimeter Glock handgun. A source told The New York Times that Lora explained to investigators that he opened the driver’s side door of Arzu’s car and that Arzu was “completely irrational and unresponsive.” According to the source, Lora stated that Arzu then tried to close the door and drive away. Lora was able to “partly” free himself but lost his footing and began to shoot, firing five rounds. An autopsy revealed that Arzu was killed by a bullet in his back, and a medical examiner determined that he had been legally drunk.
Police procedure generally prohibits officers from firing on moving vehicles, and a decision about whether the case will go to a grand jury is expected soon. Early accounts reported that Lora had seen Arzu reaching for the glove compartment, but no guns were found.
Under Giuliani, the NYPD was widely considered by activists to be an overtly racist institution, where cops could shoot at Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, 41 times and be cleared of all charges.
Yet the change in administration and a dramatic drop in crime have not meant a decrease in the number of people killed each year by the NYPD, and the victims continue to be overwhelmingly people of color. At the same time that the city has become safer, the number of bullets fired by officers has skyrocketed. And during the Bloomberg administration, just as during Giuliani’s, when unarmed individuals are killed, such as in the cases of Stansbury and Zongo, police have suffered only the mildest of consequences.
The crux of the problem, says Jones-Brown, isn’t one administration or the other, but something that runs much deeper–our nation’s ingrained feelings regarding race. “In our country, we have a notion of the criminally dangerous minority,” she says. “Criminals are young, Black and male.”
“Take someone like Sean Bell,” she continues. “Most bachelors have a party before their wedding. Most young men at these parties will drink ’til they’re blind out of their mind. But do white kids at bachelor’s parties get killed by cops? Can you imagine what would happen if cops had fired 50 bullets into a car of unarmed whites?”
“As a Black parent and citizen, if you see that this type of behavior can be excused…let’s just say, I don’t want to live in that America. Police are here, above all else, to preserve life. Policing is a public service job. We are not at war.”