Why Was Officer Peter Liang Convicted?

Was it racism, the facts of the case, or fraying trust in police?

Protesters hold a rally in support of former NYPD officer Peter Liang in Brooklyn. (Craig Ruttle / AP)

At the trial of Peter Liang, the jurors kept returning to the 11.5-pound trigger of his New York Police Department standard-issue 9mm Glock. They wanted to feel its weight in their hands, to jerk its trigger, as he said he had, before deciding the officer’s guilt. Liang was the officer who killed Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old father, for no reason but that Gurley had walked into a dark stairwell. While on a routine patrol of the Brooklyn public housing building with his partner, Liang said he drew his gun for safety. Liang’s defense had been that he kept his finger off the trigger, but that in the dark stairwell a loud sound surprised him. His finger twitched, leading to what Liang’s lawyers called “a tragic accident.”

It takes a lot to indict and convict an officer in New York. The last time it happened was in 2005, with the death of Ousmane Zongo, a West African immigrant shot in a warehouse during a raid on a counterfeit CD operation. The officer was disguised as a postal worker, and, seeing a mailman with a gun, Zongo ran and was killed. Convictions of officers are usually restricted to extreme circumstances like this, which makes Liang’s case all the more surprising.

“Ten years ago, he wouldn’t have been prosecuted,” said Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at George Washington University Law School, and former  U.S. Department of Justice deputy assistant attorney. “And if he was, they would have acquitted him.”

“As a former prosecutor and an academic who has been writing about police killings since the late ’90s, I see this case as the one least likely to result in conviction under normal circumstances,” Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote me in an email.

A week after the conviction, thousands of protesters said they knew why jurors found Liang  guilty: He’s Asian. Liang was a minority scapegoat, they said, sacrificed to a nation incensed by officers killing black men. Take the case of Eric Garner, the protesters argued. In that case, a white officer jumped on Garner’s back and choked him as Garner yelled 11 times those now famous words, “I can’t breathe!” Garner had done little more than argue with officers, and a chokehold was outlawed by police guidelines. A camera recorded everything, but even then the officer never faced a jury. That contrast raised a question—was Liang’s conviction evidence of increased accountability, of racial bias, or of both?

Liang had graduated from the police academy the year before the shooting. In November 2014, he and his partner, another recent graduate, patrolled the eighth floor of the Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn. Liang’s defense called the building notorious among officers for crime, and said that’s why as he opened the door to the stairwell, Liang drew his gun, his finger off the trigger. In the dark, Liang said a loud noise surprised him. “It was a quick sound and it just startled me. And the gun just went off after I tensed up.”

Gurley and his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, had just walked into the stairwell a flight below. After Liang fired, Gurley was left on the ground bleeding from his chest, while Liang and his partner walked back into the hallway to debate who would report the shot. Liang’s partner, Shaun Landau, said Liang seemed most concerned about losing his job. (Liang later said he didn’t know he’d shot anyone.) When Landau and Liang returned, neither offered to perform CPR. Instead, Butler took instructions from an operator over the phone. For failing to try to save Gurley’s life, Liang would be charged with official misconduct.* And for shooting Gurley, he was charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment.

Before Liang killed Gurley, about six months after Garner died in 2014, the New York Daily News reported that in 15 years, and in at least 179 NYPD officer-involved deaths, only three officers had ever been indicted. So Liang’s case going to trial in itself was a milestone. The contrast between the two cases––Garner and Liang’s––was taken by Asian protesters in New York as evidence of racial bias. In Garner’s death, Officer Daniel Pantaleo made an active decision to escalate the confrontation and choke Garner on the Staten Island sidewalk. Neither Pantaleo, nor other officers, nor four emergency medical responders tried to save Garner––just as Liang and his partner never helped Gurley. “The fact that the prosecutor in Staten Island couldn't even secure an indictment when a white police officer violates his own patrol guide ... but an Asian officer can be indicted and convicted for what appears to be completely unintentional behavior, rubs raw the existing frictions of race relations,” Delores Jones-Brown wrote me.

Gordon Zhang shares that frustration. He’s a member of the Long Island Chinese American Association, and he protested against Liang’s conviction. Liang made the perfect scapegoat, Zhang said, because the Chinese-American community in New York is often silent. They don’t march. They don’t make waves.

“The Asian community is also concerned with police brutality,” Zhang said. And while there are many reforms that need to be made in how police operate, and though Liang’s actions were questionable, “his sentencing shouldn’t be meant to cover all the mistakes of others, because it’s the system's mistake.”

The writer Jay Caspian Kang raised similar concerns in a New York Times article after the protests, writing that, “there are many within the Asian-American community, for example, who believe that Liang deserved to be convicted of manslaughter, but who also wonder why it was the Asian cop, among many other equally deserving officers, who took the fall.”

Liang and Landau said they hadn’t received proper CPR training from the police academy. (Landau testified that instructors fed recruits answers during their test.) But they were certified, and two officers standing by as an operator instructed Gurley’s girlfriend didn’t play along well with Liang’s good-man-caught-off-guard defense. “If the officer had attempted to render aid to the victim, I believe he could have still escaped a conviction,” Jones-Brown wrote me. “Not rendering aid and reportedly calling his union rep, makes him appear callous, uncaring and neglectful.”

Even so, police have always enjoyed unusual public trust. But in the year between the shooting and when Liang was indicted in February 2015, the American public had watched a stream of videos of shootings that appeared to contradict the testimony of officers. In Garner’s case, in July 2014, the officer who jumped on his back omitted the use of a chokehold––or as he preferred to call it, a “takedown technique”––from his first report. The video clearly showed otherwise. That video made “I can’t breathe!” a rallying cry. Anger thickened that August with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; in November, with the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland; in February 2015 ,with the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington;  and in April 2015, with the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina.

By the beginning of 2015, the public's confidence in police had sunk to a 22-year-low. Many white Americans (mostly liberal white Americans) seemed to have caught onto what black Americans have known for a long time: some cops lie. The video of Michael Slager, the South Carolina officer who pulled Scott over for a broken taillight, brought this into sharp relief. Scott ran after Slager pulled him over for a broken taillight and was shot eight times. Slager said that during a struggle Scott grabbed at his taser and that he feared for his life. Then a video showed Scott already some 20 feet away at the time of the shooting. Slager even walked back to drop an object near Scott’s body––the taser, some said.

Saltzburg, the George Washington University law professor,  said that after all this “jurors are much more likely now to doubt the credibility of an officer on trial.”

When asked why, in a building full of families and people going on about their lives, Liang drew his gun, his defense argued the decision wasn’t reckless because Liang kept his finger off the trigger, as he’d been trained. But the jurors wouldn’t take him at his word. So in a rare moment for court trials, jurors held Liang’s Glock, touching the metal slide, its polymer handle, squeezing and jerking the 11.5-pound trigger. “It all revolves around that shot,” one juror, Carlton Screen, later said.

The NYPD’s Glock has more than twice the trigger resistance of the model sold to the public. The trigger also has what Glock calls its Safe Action System, an extra button designed to keep the gun “always safe and always ready”—free from the sort of accidental slip of the finger that Liang described. After clicking and pulling it themselves, jurors decided that Liang had lied. “It was very hard to pull the trigger,” Screen said. After that, “we knew his testimony wasn’t completely true.”

It may seem unfair. After the killings of so many black men by white officers, why should the first major conviction be Asian?

Last week a young white officer in Alabama stopped a 58-year-old black man as he walked home at 3 a.m. because he looked “suspicious.” The man reportedly ran, and the officer shot and killed him. Officials first backed the officer, then changed their minds. He was charged with murder. So it may be that Liang is less an exception in need of explanation, than an evidence of a sustained shift in scrutiny of police-involved homicides. The proliferation of video evidence seems to have opened the possibility that a badge will no longer confer the benefit of the doubt.

* This article originally misstated one of Liang’s charges; he was charged with official misconduct. We regret that error.