For New York City Officers, Drawing Guns Is Based on Discretion, Not Rules
There are some New York City police officers who can count on one hand the number of times they have drawn a gun, even over decades on the force.
Then there are the officers who patrol the city’s 334 public housing complexes. There are about 2,350 uniformed officers in the department’s Housing Bureau, about 1,825 of whom are rank-and-file police officers.
To some of them, drawing their guns, even with no present threat, is routine, a practice borne of habit or some internal gauge of an encounter that might go bad. And their bosses, unlike some police commanders around the country, permit it. So, in doing vertical patrols, the roof-to-ground sweeps through buildings, unholstering can be second nature.
It apparently was for a young officer on patrol Thursday night in East New York, Brooklyn. In a darkened hallway in the Louis H. Pink Houses, the officer’s precaution turned fatal for an innocent young man.
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Late Thursday night in this dim stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, Officer Peter Liang accidentally killed Akai Gurley, 28.
Officer’s Errant Shot Kills Unarmed Brooklyn Man NOV. 21, 2014
City officials said it was an accident: Officer Peter Liang, 27, was walking through a hallway door at 2724 Linden Boulevard with his gun drawn when he fired a single bullet that traveled down a flight of stairs and struck 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the chest, killing him.
Mr. Gurley was unarmed and innocent.
As the circumstances emerged, the notion of police officers patrolling inside public housing complexes with guns unholstered struck some as troubling, or even reckless. But Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said that officers were relied upon to use discretion, and that there was no “specific prohibition” against drawing a gun. In fact, he acknowledged, it was not uncommon for housing officers to do so, with good reason.
“Every time they open that rooftop door,” he said of their vertical patrols, “there is a risk that they are facing.”
Even as overall crime continues falling citywide — homicides by 6 percent and robberies by 14 percent — crime has been more persistent in housing projects and, in some cases, has risen, leading residents and local leaders to demand more police action. At the Pink Houses, plagued by gang violence, two people have been killed this year, and shootings have spiked; there was a shooting in the lobby of a neighboring building on Nov. 15.
Too much gun-drawing by officers, though, presents other risks: An officer can lose control, be disarmed or unnecessarily escalate to deadly force. That can lead to “tragedy for everybody,” said Vincent E. Henry, a former city police officer who retired in 2002 as a Police Academy commander.
“No cop goes out in the morning and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to go kill someone in the stairway,’ ” he said. “Every cop you meet could give you a litany of examples of times they wish they had drawn their gun, and didn’t, and times when they did draw their gun and later learned it was unnecessary.”
To civilians, the vision of armed officers ready to fire can create “unnecessary anxiety,” according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s policy on drawing weapons, particularly when the encounters fall outside an emergency. Departments in Las Vegas, Denver and elsewhere have wrestled with the risks — including accidental discharge — of too quickly drawing a gun.
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Every year in New York, the independent agency that investigates allegations of police abuse receives hundreds of complaints from people shaken when officers point guns at them. Workers who maintain public housing buildings — repairing the broken lights that make the hallways dark — sometimes worry as much about armed officers as criminals.
What makes one officer comfortable without a gun in hand is sometimes a matter of experience.
“It is an individual judgment,” said Robert J. Louden, who retired from the New York police force as a lieutenant and is now a professor at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.
But there is no fail-safe way — despite lectures, tactical drills and hours of target practice — to “develop cops who will use their discretion well,” Mr. Henry said. Often, younger officers learn from older ones.
Precisely why, and how, Officer Liang fired his 9-millimeter gun is under investigation. The officer has not provided his account to an investigator, which is typical after a shooting in which the case may be presented to a grand jury.
One possibility is that he tried to turn the knob of the door to the stairwell with his left hand, which also clutched his gun.
But whether he clumsily lost his grip or squeezed the trigger in fright are open questions. Trying to do several things with one hand is more worrisome than drawing the gun to begin with, Mr. Louden said.
“Why does a cop not carry an umbrella?” he said. “Because even though he might get wet, and needs an umbrella, he needs his hands to do other things.”
Officers facing “a civilian complaint” over drawing a gun simply need a “justifiable” explanation for doing so, said Edward Mamet, who retired after 40 years on the city’s police force. But the “big thing,” he said, is the need to keep one’s finger off the trigger.
Those on the other side of a gun barrel see matters less simply. Though they face risks similar to those faced by officers, residents of public housing in central Brooklyn have experienced some of the highest rates of police stop-and-frisk activity.
Mechanics who work nights fixing rooftop elevators in public housing have had officers on vertical patrols aim guns at them, said Gregory Floyd, the president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents about 8,000 such workers.
“They are fearful of one day being mistaken for someone other than an elevator mechanic,” Mr. Floyd said of his members.
In recent times, the Civilian Complaint Review Board has received more than 200 complaints each year from people who said they had faced a gun pointed at them by an officer. From 2009 to 2013, such complaints have made up about 6 percent of all allegations about the wrongful use of force by officers. In a vast majority of the gun-pointing cases, the officers were exonerated.
In the aftermath of Mr. Gurley’s death, several law enforcement analysts said, the city must amend its policies for officers drawing guns during vertical patrols and revamp its training.
“It unequivocally has to,” said Eugene J. O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Rookie officers might be paired with “mentors” in doing vertical patrols, he said, and learn that having a gun out is a “momentous step.”
“What the department needs to do is come up with an approach that allows cops to protect themselves,” he said, “while simultaneously guarding against ever having a repeat of this kind of ending.”