Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The case of Officer Liang and Akai Gurley

In class, we recently had a discussion over the relationship between African Americans and police officers within the United States. Many of my classmates had notions regarding this topic that I agree with, while some did not. Because of this, my second reaction paper will cover the relationship between African Americans and police officers in the United States, as well as ideas conceived by classmates on how to repair this relationship to ensure the well-being of both African Americans and police officers.

The discussion stemmed from a classmate bringing awareness to the case of Peter Liang, an Asian American cop accused of shooting and killing an unarmed African American man. According to journalist Fuchs, November 20th of 2014, officer Peter Liang entered a stairwell with his partner, Rafael Ramos, for a “vertical patrol” ( Fuchs, 2016).  During this patrol, Liang heard a noise that frightened him, fired his gun, the bullet ricocheted off a wall, and struck an unarmed Akai Gurley.  Though, Akai Gurley was shot by the bullet, he was able to knock on a resident’s door and tell the resident to call 911.  The 911 dispatcher detailed how to give CPR,  however, neither police officer performed CPR on Gurley. Instead they are quoted to have  argued over calling for help while Gurley “lay dying” (2016).

Gurley, in fact, died as a result of his injuries. As a result, in February of 2016, Liang  was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, assault, and reckless endangerment, criminally negligent homicide, and a count of official misconduct (2016). The one count of official misconduct stemmed from Liang not performing CPR on Gurley. In response to this count, Liang stated that he felt unqualified to perform CPR, as he did not practice CPR at the Police Academy, and his instructors gave those training answers to the exams (2016). In response to Liang’s conviction, the Asian American community was divided by those that supported the conviction and those that did not.

Those in support of the conviction argue that “police violence” which stems from systemic racism will continue not combatted (Guillermo, 2015). However, some groups argue that the murder of an unarmed African American man by an Asian American and the conviction of the Asian American police officer was used as a scapegoat. These groups contend that if the police officer was a European American then he would not have been convicted, as many have been before.

It is from this idea that some of the Asian American groups have, that if Peter Liang had been a white police officer he would not have been convicted that the class discussion stemmed. Because I cannot speak for any member of the Asian American community, it can be inferred that many groups in support of Liang, believe that because some European American cops or European Americans, in general, are not punished has harshly as people of color or cops that are of color when convicting the same or similar crimes, there is an importance placed on the lives of European Americans that is not placed on the lives of people of color. This importance is perpetuated in both the private and public spheres, more specifically and in this case of Liang, in jobs that are deemed uniformed service or public safety service.

From this idea that the legal system fails to punish white cops as it does cops of color who commit the same or similar crimes, that my classmates began to give ideas on how to repair this system. Some inferred that the reformation of the legal system begins in the Police Academy – that certain incentives be given and that requirements to become a police officer are lengthened. I believe that both of these conditions could result in individuals being more equipped to fulfill their duties as a cop without feeling as if they had the capabilities to abuse the power that is instilled in the job title.  Also a furthered education, possibly promoting individuals obtaining a secondary education, would also be another benefit as the individual would have additional knowledge along with what is learned in the Police Academy.

Aside from what can be done to ensure that individuals become police officers who will not abuse their power, classmates also argued that there should be ways for miscommunications and harsh feelings between African Americans and police officers to be resolved. One way to resolve these issues could be programs that allow one-on-one interaction between the two communities which could also disprove any prejudice or bigoted notions one community may have towards the other. This could also be done with other minority groups and police officers, as well as non-minorities and police officers.

In class, my peers also offered their stances on how they believe African Americans should respond to police officers. These responses seemed to stem from the idea that cops are going to act upon racist, bigoted, or discriminatory notions or may have a superiority complex. While some cops may act upon these notions, some will not. Because of this, I was confused on my classmates’ stances, as I perceived it as them believing that African Americans should believe that when pulled over or approached by a cop they should act submissively due to the cop possibly having these kind of beliefs – submissively as in not objecting to any wrongful treatment they may be subjected to.

There were also comments made on acting African Americans making sure they act respectful to police officers. This is definitely needed, but I believe this should be promoted with all individuals, not just cops. These ideas were easier to digest than the ideas suggesting that an individual allow wrongful treatment by a cop by not speaking out, simply because they are a cop. This not only promotes the continuation of unlawful abuse by cops, but allows for animosity to grow between police officers and the public. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this in class discussion and the different stances that my classmates’ had, whether I agreed with them or not. As for the case the encouraged the discussion, I think that certain subgroups within communities are vying for solidarity within themselves and their community and are willing to come together for any reason – whether it be good or bad. I strongly believe that this case, more specifically, the murder of an unarmed minority would also not be such a taboo topic if there was not varied treatment of individuals who have the same job title. By working with both police officers and various communities affected by police mistreatment or anger these groups may have, matters like this could be resolved without contesting the worth of another’s individual’s life.


Fuchs, C. (2016, February 11). NYPD Officer Peter Liang guilty of second-degree Manslaughter in Akai Gurley killing. NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/nypd-officer-peter-liang-guilty-second-degree-manslaughter-akai-gurley-n516796 

Fuchs, C. (2016, February 23). Chinese community divided over NYPD officer's indictment. NBC News.  Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/chinese-community-divided-over-nypd-officers-indictment-n306946 

Guillermo, E. (2015, April 28). Police violence will repeat itself': Asian groups call for accountability. NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/police-violence-will-repeat-itself-asian-groups-call-accountability-n349601

In this case an innocent person is dead, and the person responsible for that death ought to face punitive consequences.  It seems clear that the death was not intentionally caused, but officer Liang had his gun out of its holster and pulled the trigger when there was evidently no need, and that seems to justify the charge of second-degree manslaughter and criminal endangerment. The fact that Officer Liang did not offer assistance to the man he had mortally wounded seems to justify the official misconduct charge, and perhaps also the criminally negligent homicide. So, it seems to me hardly any fair person could object to these charges being made, and since I haven’t read the court transcripts or attended the court processes, I will just have to trust that the verdicts were fairly reached.

So far, I think there isn’t really any room for dispute, although I suppose some might argue for charges of less serious crimes, or more serious crimes, depending upon their dispositions.  I think the agents of the state tend to make the harshest and most serious charges they can possibly make, because built into the system is the assumption that there will be some sort of plea-bargain and the accused defendant will admit to a lesser charge and spare the state the cost of the full prosecution. 

By the way, CPR usually does not save lives, but it is a criminal injustice for two law enforcement officers to fail to provide the first aid assistance when they have accidentally shot someone, or even intentionally shot someone. 

Should police officers be charged with crimes when they commit crimes?  Of course they should be.  Are police officers frequently given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to get away with justifications for their decisions and actions, and thus escape prosecution and punishment for terrible decisions, reckless incompetence, and criminal behavior?  Yes, probably so.  There is always a problem of “who will police the police?” and this is an inherent crisis in every act of state violence.  The state (largely through its police and military functions) holds a monopoly on the right to use violence, but the use of violence is always a serious matter, and states tend to use more violence than necessary, partially because the people who are allowed to use the violence frequently are frightened, or brutal, or over zealous in their caution to prevent any injury that could be inflicted upon them.    

If police of one ethnic background are treated differently from police of another ethnic background, is this a violation of moral principles?  Yes, certainly it violates the principle that all should be treated equally under the law.  Do European-American police commit reckless acts that get innocent people killed?  Of course they do, and these acts of violence are sometimes recorded and made public.  Are they always prosecuted and punished when they do these horrible things?  No, sometimes they are not, although sometimes they are.  The fact that police are sometimes not prosecuted or punished when they, through incompetence or misconduct or brutal recklessness kill people who ought not to have been killed, is a social problem.  The solution to this problem is to more frequently and fairly prosecute and punish police who deserve prosecution and punishment.  

But, do we always know when police have acted in a way that deserves prosecution and punishment?  No, we cannot always know.  Sometimes actions that seem terrible may be justified and excused.  Sometimes actions that seem excusable and justified may really be terrible and worthy of prosecution and punishment.  There will be ambiguity in many cases.  When there is ambiguity, bias can infect the decision-making processes, and that means European-American police may get the benefit of the doubt (a preference for being very selective and avoiding errors of sensitivity) while Asian-American or African-American police may be held to higher standards (a preference for tolerating more errors of selectivity and avoiding errors arising from not being sensitive enough).

However, bias is something that influences probability, and in single cases, I doubt we can really know if bias is working its devilry. We know there is bias when we can show patterns or probabilities that are tending toward unfair differences for members of groups.  If three or four European-American police are given a benefit of the doubt and one Asian-American officer is prosecuted and convicted, we do not have a large enough sample to be certain whether bias is at work.

So, what is the proper response when bias may be causing an injustice, but we are not certain whether it is?  Sometimes we ought to protest and make a loud noise about the potential for bias and the real threat of bias, even when we are uncertain that bias exists, because it would be an injustice to wait for better evidence of injustice.  Other times, we ought to wait and see, and delay our protest until we are more confident that we can demonstrate a pattern of bias or injustice.  How do we make that decision?

The mixed feelings about the death of Akai Gurley and the conviction of Officer Liang is probably rooted in the mix of complicated moral issues.  Police do seem to have a bias against African-Americans, and this bias certainly has caused some deaths of innocent African-Americans and African or Caribbean immigrants. That’s an outrageous injustice.  Sometimes police are not prosecuted or punished when they ought to be, and that another insult to our sense of justice.  Officer Liang may have been made a scapegoat, and may have suffered greater punishment than he deserved, in an attempt to diminish the public outrage over the behavior of many European-American police who had committed similar or worse acts of homicidal incompetence, and if that is so, then that is yet another tragic injustice that might reasonably stir up our hot indignation.

The problem comes, I think, in comparing relative injustice.  Here is an injustice that seems clear, and here is one with ambiguity, so should I disparage the injustice shrouded in a veil of uncertainty in a comparison to the injustice that is clear and evident?  Here is an injustice that seems worse to me, and here is another injustice that seems not as evil to me.  Should I dismiss the smaller injustice and point instead to the greater injustice?  Here again, we have no clear moral certainty.  Yes, some injustices are much worse than others, and we ought to put greater effort into correcting those greater injustices.  But sometimes the relative level of misery and injustice is approximately similar, and then, what is the point, what is the objective, what is the goal of using our minds to discriminate between which violation of the good is the worse?

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