The fatal shooting by a New York police officer of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury Jr. in Brooklyn early last Saturday prompted New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to visit the scene — a rooftop in Bedford- Stuyvesant. “There appears to be no justification for the shooting,” Kelly, the city’s top-ranking cop, told reporters later that afternoon. Just days later, according to The New York Times on Tuesday, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said it had enough evidence to charge Officer Richard Neri, 35, with criminally negligent homicide or second-degree manslaughter.
Could we expect such swift and decisive action by Los Angeles officials? Probably not. Recent history has favored a circuitous approach that outlasts the public’s interest and, in some instances, even the federal government’s ability to follow through on its own findings of wrongdoing.
Protocols adopted by police agencies in Los Angeles County call for in-depth, parallel and independent investigations by police and prosecutors — which can take months. “We prefer to investigate fully,” says Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Steve Cooley.
Stansbury and two friends had ascended the stairs to the roof of the Louis Armstrong Houses at about 1:30 a.m. to take a shortcut to a birthday party, when either Neri or his partner, who were on patrol, opened the door to the roof, according to New York Police Detective Thomas Kuchma. As the door opened, a startled Neri fired a single shot into Stansbury’s chest, Kuchma says. Witnesses said Stansbury and his friends were unarmed and that Neri failed to announce his presence or issue any warning.
Kelly wasted no time acknowledging that the officer was at fault. “It’s a striking [admission],” says Venice civil rights attorney V. James DeSimone of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman. The commissioner’s admission also could be seen as a smart public relations move in light of the recent $3 million payout to the family of Amadou Diallo, whom New York police gunned down in 1999 while he was standing in the vestibule to his apartment, after he reached for his wallet.
DeSimone, who has handled a half-dozen police shooting cases, says he is more accustomed to efforts by Los Angeles police to cover up for one another. “Investigation is where it all begins. Police are either trying to find out what happened, or justify the conduct of their fellow officers. In my experience, it’s been the latter.”
Police shootings in New York increased from 119 in 2002 to 128 in 2003. In Los Angeles, police say there were 66 officer-involved shootings in 2003, down from 77 the previous year.
The most provocative recent police shootings in Los Angeles occurred on former Police Chief Bernard Parks’ watch. Among them:
• In October 2000, Los Angeles Police Officer Tarriel Hopper, responding to noise complaints at a Halloween party, shot 39-year-old Anthony Lee several times in the back after observing Lee from outside a Benedict Canyon home with a toy gun in his hand. An LAPD internal review board determined in October 2001 that the shooting was justified, as did the civilian Los Angeles Police Commission and the District Attorney’s Office.
• In August 2001, prosecutors decided not to charge Officer Edward Larrigan for shooting Margaret Mitchell in the chest in May 1999 after she allegedly lunged at him with a screwdriver. Conflicting rulings by civilian overseers and the police chief clouded the outcome of the matter. The Police Commission concluded the shooting violated department policy; an internal board-of-rights hearing and then-Chief Parks found it to be justified.
• In 1997, a mentally ill man in Watts named Darryl Hood refused to put down two knives after stabbing himself in the head and chest. Ten Los Angeles police formed a semicircle around him as Officers Miguel Perez and Brent Houlihan shot Hood to death. Internal-affairs investigators said the shooting was justified because Hood was advancing toward the officers. DeSimone says videotape showed that Hood was not advancing toward the officers.
Lieutenant Art Miller of the Los Angeles Police Department says for all officer-involved shootings five agencies independently investigate the matter before any public statements are made. Those agencies include LAPD’s Robbery and Homicide Division and Critical Incident Division, the District Attorney’s Rollout Team, the Inspector General of the Police Commission, and the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. “It is a long, detailed investigation,” Miller says.
Cooley’s office has rarely charged, much less convicted, a police officer for shooting someone. In October 2001, however, Officer Ronald Orosco pleaded no contest to shooting an unarmed motorist in the back during a routine traffic stop in June 2000.
In New York, the D.A.’s Office and the NYPD are conducting their own investigations into the Stansbury shooting, but the public statements by the heads of those offices have been prejudicial to the officer, according to Stuart London, the lawyer for Officer Neri. On Tuesday, London characterized those statements as a “knee-jerk political reaction” to Saturday’s shooting. “It’s unusual for a commissioner to make such premature and potentially prejudicial statements,” London says. “Usually they say the matter is under investigation. If they want to step out a little, they say it warrants a close look. In general, officials stay away from legal terms of art such as ‘no justification.’”
New York officials may seem hasty in their judgment, but at least no one’s talking about a victim wielding a shiny object an officer mistook for a gun.