After the conviction of Officer Peter Liang for the shooting death of Akai Gurley, it seemed activists could breathe a sigh of relief knowing that this would be a rare occasion where an NYPD officer would actually face punishment for manslaughter that resulted from his reckless and negligent behavior.
But activists were stirred up yet again when Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson recommended no jail time for Liang – only five years probation with six months of house arrest. Although the recommendations are non-binding, nonetheless the specter of Liang receiving no prison time was enough to prompt an emergency press conference Thursday to denounce the possibility. (It bears noting that I was among those who joined in the event.)
“Michael Vick got three years in prison for dogs dying on his property,” said Assemblyman Charles Barron, an outspoken black activist and former Black Panther, at the press conference. “Are you saying our lives are not more important than a dog’s life?” Vick ultimately served eighteen months of his prison sentence.
That DA Thompson feels no need for Liang to face incarceration also raises a question of what Thompson feels does merit incarceration.
Among high profile cases under Thompson’s tenure as DA, one case in particular stands out as contrasting with his recommendations for Liang: the sentencings of Pedro Rosales and Jessica Aguilar for the accidental shooting of their daughter, Jessica Rosales, who actually survived.
In November 2014, Mr. Rosales was in his home cleaning his unregistered loaded firearm and tested the spring mechanism, which resulted in the gun firing and shooting his nine-month-old daughter. The bullet entered her hip and exited her back, although she survived and did not even need surgery.
And what sentence did Pedro Rosales receive for an accidental firing that killed no one? Four years’ incarceration.
Meanwhile, the child’s mother Jessica Aguilar accepted a plea deal for three years’ probation. Not because she took part in the shooting, but because she saw that her husband was cleaning the firearm and then did something in another room. Aguilar also initially told law enforcement that she was not present for the shooting.
Whereas Peter Liang’s response to shooting Gurley was to fret over losing his job instead of tending to the victim, Rosales and Aguilar took their child to the hospital. Initially they did not disclose the actual circumstances of the shooting.
While Pedro Rosales certainly committed a crime, why is he not simply facing house arrest, DA Thompson, for an accidental firing that did not kill anyone? And why was Aguilar indicted and convicted because she saw her husband was cleaning a gun, when Officer Liang’s partner Shaun Landau received no indictment for watching Liang patrol with his gun drawn and finger on the trigger, and later fail to attend to Gurley?
In justifying his recommendation of leniency for Liang, Thompson said, “There is no evidence…that he intended to kill or injure Akai Gurley…Mr. Liang has no prior criminal history and poses no future threat to public safety.”
Meanwhile, there is nothing to indicate that Pedro Rosales intended to kill or injure his daughter. Nor does his case suggest that he poses a threat to public safety, unless he has a habit of cleaning his firearm in public. Any criminal history Rosales or Aguilar may have is not immediately clear, based on news reports.
There does not appear to be any elected officials who urged leniency for Rosales and Aguilar owing to their child’s shooting being accidental. Instead, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams and Assemblyman N. Nick Perry proposed increasing the penalty for possessing an unregistered firearm in the presence of a minor. Assemblyman Steve Katz, an upstate Republican, did for his part question whether that would actually alter anyone’s behavior.
But beyond the circumstances of individual cases, and excusing or excoriating shootings, is the question of whether Thompson urged leniency for Officer Liang because the DA’s office and the NYPD must cooperate in perpetuum. If so, this may be a compelling example for using independent prosecutors in cases of police brutality.