Why was this Officer Held Responsible for his Actions?

One little story that didn’t even make the New York Times top-ten-most-viewed articles list is nevertheless blowing up on Chinese social media networks.

The state has convicted first NYPD officer in over a decade for an in-the-line-of-duty shooting. And he’s Chinese-American.

Peter Liang photo

Image by diana_robinson

The actual story seems tailored to incorporate as many things that are wrong with America as possible. Two police officers, one “a probationary officer with less than 18 months on the job,” were entering a “pitch-black” stairwell at a Brooklyn housing project. A couple who had been waiting on the elevator grew frustrated and entered the stairwell on another floor. The officer shot a single round, and it ricocheted and hit the man, black, who later died. There is apparently “a longtime police practice of officers drawing their weapons when patrolling stairwells in housing projects.”

That was November. He was convicted Thursday of manslaughter and faces up to 15 years of prison.

I only read about all this after hearing of it from the better Bath. After reading the NYT coverage, I had to confess to her that a conviction seems appropriate. If someone were to shoot me, even accidentally, I’d want them to face some sort of punishment if they could have reasonably foreseen the risk they were creating.

What then-Officer Peter Liang did was illegal. He is guilty of killing an innocent man, and it is just and right that he was convicted.

But why are we enforcing the rules now? We have officers gang-choking people in the streets on videotape, and they don’t get indicted let alone put on trial and convicted. In this case, the responsible was convicted and is serving jail time, while his partner, who failed to provide aid to the dying man was given an immunity deal.

Liang’s own lawyer seems to discount race playing a part in the conviction:

“People of all races are saying that if Peter Liang were not Chinese or were not a person of color, maybe he wouldn’t have been convicted,” said Robert E. Brown, one of Mr. Liang’s lawyers. “I honestly don’t know. I don’t think that our jury deliberately said, ‘Let’s convict this person because he’s a person of color.’”

It’s remarkable that a defense lawyer in 2016 in New York City would could harbor such a naive view of how racism works. Contrary to what some say in the linked piece, Liang wasn’t thrown under the bus. He was simply not rescued from his own actions as so many of his peers have been–including every one of them who fired a gun while on duty in the past decade. No one went out of their way to save his less-than-18-months-on-the-force (and Asian) hide.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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47 thoughts on “Why was this Officer Held Responsible for his Actions?

  1. I had a similar conversation on Facebook, and we all agreed that the optics of police officers being found guilty – in the very rare occasions that such justice occurs – are almost always ugly. And whether or not it is intentional is really beside the point, although after so many occurrences, it seems impossible to deny that justice is almost always more likely to be visited upon minority officers than it is upon the white ones.

    America is a broken sewer.

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    • Why are the optics “ugly?” This is manslaughter pure and simple. BLM should be happy. Or maybe not, they are probably unhappy it wasn’t a white officer that was found guilty. So know you are saying the only reason he was found guilty was because he was a minority? That makes me laugh, b/c clearly everything is racist all the time, without fail. What was more likely is that he committed the crime at the zenith of recent scrutiny of police actions.

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      • It isn’t about the guilt, it’s about the zeal (or, in this case, the lack of it) that the NYPD & the police union display in protecting officers who screw up.

        The optics are that Liang was hung out to dry, that the department and the union basically gave the DA the A-OK to prosecute the rookie so they could all look tough and serious about police use of force. Liang was sacrificial.

        And yet again, the DA, PD, and the union demonstrate their myopic view. Burning a rookie doesn’t help. Rookies aren’t supposed to know better, that’s why they are rookies. Now had they put his training officer and chain of command out in the metaphorical stocks for failing to properly train the rookie, that might be different. But they didn’t, they tossed out a guy with barely any time in, someone who wasn’t “valuable” yet. It’s like Telling Jay Leno he has too many cars and has to give one up to satisfy the environmentalists, and he tosses out the Toyota Corolla.

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        • The optics are that Liang was hung out to dry……

          Whose optics, the blacks, Asians, liberals, whites or cops’ optics? According to my optics he was appropriately found guilty.

          Rookies aren’t supposed to know better, that’s why they are rookies.

          Generally, I would agree but this guy’s actions went beyond FNG stupidity. Besides this guy had been out of the academy for more than a year. Long enough to know about indexing your finger on your weapon.

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          • Make no mistake, I absolutely agree that Liang screwed up and needed to be prosecuted. That is not the issue*.

            The issue is that so many other officers screw up in similarly obvious ways and the system heroically covers for them. As it stands, the only time police go on trial is when they commit criminal acts that so clearly fall outside any hope of a line of duty ruling that they pretty much have no choice. If the act can be covered under line of duty, it will be. Police are largely immune to their acts, if it can’t be ignored, it’s obfuscated by time and opacity until it is largely forgotten, and when it can’t be ignored, the DA tends to deliver the “correct” result through the Grand Jury system or their discretion to prosecute. And finally, even if the officer is so bad the department fires them, union review boards have a habit of forcing the department to give the officer his job back.

            Now, notme, I can almost hear your retort, that the majority of those decisions not to prosecute are “correct”, so I have to wonder, when was the last time you thought the decision not to prosecute a cop was wrong? And how do you square the prosecution rate of cops with the knowledge that everyone screws up, and most civilians who do actually face an indictment? Police can not be more perfect that everyone else.

            *You are absolutely correct, so one has to wonder, who taught this guy that doing verticals with an un-holstered weapon was the right way to do it. I suspect the reality is similar to the Baltimore PD, where actual policy is largely ignored until it bites someone in the ass.

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            • For the most part, I’m fine with the tie going to the cops, however, I do think they get away with too much when justifying shootings as the result of a furtive movement. Civilians would have to show they saw a weapon when the cops don’t always have to.

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              • Good, we have a point of agreement. That standard bugs me as well, but I also recognize that the courts are largely responsible for the acceptance of that double standard (defendants make the argument and judges are just fine letting it fly for cops, when the same would not fly for a civilian).

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        • “The optics are that Liang was hung out to dry, that the department and the union basically gave the DA the A-OK to prosecute the rookie so they could all look tough and serious about police use of force. Liang was sacrificial.”

          Or rather that a rookie/non-white officer was not given the usual protection.

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  2. It’s unlikely his race didn’t’ play a part in his conviction. But if officers are held responsible that is good. Nobody is saying he wasn’t guilty so his punishment is then fair. That white officers are getting off needs to be remembered and loudly spoken the next time to maybe start pushing the needle towards all cops being held responsible.

    The tragedy isn’t Liang, its all the others.

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  3. I kind of doubt that Robert E. Brown doesn’t understand how racism works. I fact, I think he’s obliquely referencing, while saying the sort of thing that most helps his client. That’s why he says, “I honestly don’t know” first.

    No, it’s not fair or right. I’m not arguing either of those. I’m just saying that’s my read of the quote.

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  4. There were 15 police shootings of black guys in stairwells last night and *THIS* is the one that they plaster all over the nightly news!

    There’s no good way to complain about this outcome.
    There’s no good way to suggest that we ought to have had a different outcome.

    The entire system is rotten.

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  5. It seems like the issue was that he wasn’t protected, potentially, by racism. He was appropriately held to the standards of the law. That isn’t an injustice towards the cop.

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  6. In the past month, a black man was brutally executed by police for killing a police dog.
    It didn’t need to happen.
    I doubt any of them are going to be punished.

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  7. Vikram:

    Why was this Officer Held Responsible for his Actions?

    Because his actions clearly met the standard for charges of manslaughter and the jury agreed.

    But why are we enforcing the rules now?

    I’m not sure you are asking the right question. The rules are enforced. The cops in the Rice case had their action reviewed and no indictment was given, unlike the cops in the Freddie Gray case. It seems to me that you are really asking why a cop was now found guilty. Maybe it is as simple as the fact that Liang’s actions were so clearly illegal?

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  8. I didn’t know anything about this case until I saw big headlines on the train. Not knowing the details, my initial thoughts were similar to those expressed here: It is good when we hold police responsible for their actions, but it is concerning if we do so selectively, especially with race as a prime factor.

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  9. It seems worth pointing out that the primary purpose of stairwell patrols are carrying out the war on drugs. Culpability lies with more than just this officer.

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        • You are now talking about wars? I thought this thread was a police shooting? Am I in the wring thread or are you changing the subject? I know liberals are often seeking to escape individual responsibility but this is silly.

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          • It’s an analogy. Show why it doesn’t work. You said the person pulling the trigger is solely culpable. I’m asking if this applies to soldiers. It’s a simple question. But you’d rather dodge and dig then engage. Typical.

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            • From one of the NYT links:

              a longtime police practice of officers drawing their weapons when patrolling stairwells in housing projects.

              I don’t know how to appropriately allocate blame here, but this is a seriously fished up state we find ourselves in. I’m guessing there is a great big yarn that can be spun about how we got there, none of it involving Liang.

              Still, if Liang had even half-heartedly attempted to practice proper trigger discipline, that guy would be alive.

              To state it a bit more plainly, any bad thing can have multiple parties who could be blamed even if there is one person who is clearly at the center of it and should receive proximate blame.

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              • I agree, Vikram. If it seemed I was arguing that Liang had no culpability, I structured my argument poorly. This wasn’t a cop who went rogue or who was uniquely incompetent or negligent. This was a cop on a problematic mission employing poor form who royally fucked up.

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  10. I’ve been following this case from the beginning. Without knowing the minds of the jurors it’s impossible to rule out any type of racism in the conviction but I don’t see any evidence to support it.

    I think that the optics on this one didn’t sufficiently meet a mainstream political narrative (hence the relative quiet by the media). The shoot was unintentional, the victim was an African immigrant, the officer is Asian, and most importantly from the NYPD’s perspective, the case didn’t really implicate LEO self-defense/use of force (at least not the way the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown did).

    My opinion is that Officer Leong’s biggest error wasnt being Chinese. It was meeting the ‘one bad apple’/’one incompetent officer’ narrative that the police have long been comfortable with. If Leong was a sacrificial lamb (again, an assumption) then it’s because his conviction did not threaten the broader lack of accountability police enjoy during interactions with the public, particularly regarding use of force during arrest.

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