The Problem with Guns in New York City

People who have never seen a midtown avenue at 9 o’clock in the morning would have a hard time imagining the mass of people heading in every direction.  There can be more folks on one stretch of sidewalk than populate small towns. Some move swiftly toward wherever they’re going, while others just stand there, blocking the ones who have a place to go.

This is no place to shoot a gun.

The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, confirmed on Saturday that all nine were wounded by police bullets, bullet fragments or shrapnel from ricochets. Mr. Kelly also confirmed that the shooter, Mr. Johnson, never fired another shot after killing a former co-worker, Steven Ercolino, moments earlier.

“We had a witness that said that Johnson fired at the police,” Mr. Kelly said Saturday. “But the final count of the shells, it appears that that is not the case.”

It’s assume that when the officers approach the Jeffrey Johnson, who had just murdered Steve Ercolino outside the Empire State Building, they had no choice but to shoot.

The veteran patrolmen who opened fire on the suit-clad gunman, Jeffrey Johnson, had only an instant to react when he whirled around and pointed a .45-caliber pistol at them as they approached him from behind on a busy sidewalk.

Officer Craig Matthews shot seven times, and Officer Robert Sinishtaj fired nine times, police said. Neither had ever fired their weapons before on a patrol.

If someone “whirled around and pointed” a gun at me, there’s little doubt that I would shoot as well, if I could.  The gunman went down with ten bullets in his body, which is pretty good shooting by New York City standards. So did nine other people who had the misfortune of being on the wrong block at the wrong time. That none of them were killed was fortunate.  By fortunate, I mean lucky for them. Pure luck.

Similarly fortuitous was the New York Times reporter’s ability to find an “expert” professor who miraculously available to explain what happened:

Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina and an expert on the police use of force, said that hitting innocent civilians “doesn’t happen very often, but it happens.”

He added: “The rule of thumb is that you do not put civilians in the line of fire, but the rule of thumb is also that you don’t let a murderer get away.”

In fairness, the reporters never ask if you’re an “expert,” but rather add it to your name to give the quote greater weight and make their story appear well-researched.  But this one was wrong. This had nothing to do with letting a murderer get away, and if it had, it would have been inexplicably wrong.

The justification for the police opening fire was the First Rule of Policing, make it home for dinner. The officers feared for their lives, and who wouldn’t be if a man with a gun whirled around and pointed it at you. 

But for the nine people who happened to be wounded, the reasonableness of the police shooting brings little comfort. They were innocent people. They did nothing to get themselves shot. It’s a fair assumption that they all had better things to do that day, and likely had other plans for the evening than to spend the night in a hospital. Some, maybe all, will suffer for a long time from their wounds. Some may be disabled for the rest of their lives. The life of every innocent person shot has been changed by the misfortune of being on the wrong block that morning.

While we often consider the ramifications of the system on the wrongfully convicted, people who spend years, decades in prison when they’ve done nothing wrong, few will give much thought to the fact that nine innocent people were convicted by errant bullets and shrapnel that morning.  Bullets offer no due process.  There is no appeal from a bullet.  DNA won’t exonerate you from being shot.

Nine for one.  The maxim is that it’s better for  “n” guilty men to go free than one innocent man to be wrongfully convicted.  Here, nine innocent people were shot so stop one guilty man.

There will always be the well-intended but ridiculously naive person who asks why the cops couldn’t carefully put a single bullet with between Johnson’s eyes, so no one else would be put at risk.  No one has such mad skills. This isn’t a Dirty Harry movie, but real life on a real street with real cops and real bystanders.  As great as it might be if a cop, in the blink of an eye and with fear and adrenalin rushing through his veins could shoot a quarter at 100 paces, it just doesn’t happen that way.

Nor is there likely to be any recompense for the nine people shot.  Maybe the City will show some sympathy of their own volition, but it’s hard to nail down anything the police did wrong.  Sometimes bad things just happen when they do their job.  Sometimes, the cops aren’t breaking rules or violating rights, and still people get hurt.

Yet, our minds somehow play a game that allows us to feel badly for the nine people shot without connecting the harm to them with the need to exercise force.  While it feels differently to us, the pain of a bullet entering a body is no different to a bystander in a righteous police shoot than it is if it came from the gun of a criminal.  The change to their lives, next week, next year, will be every bit as real as if they were victims of a horrible crime.

There may be no good answer to what happened on Fifth Avenue that morning, but that offers little comfort to the people, whether they were moving swiftly to wherever they were going or just standing there, blocking the path.


10 comments on “The Problem with Guns in New York City

  1. Frank

    And I expect to hear, just as I did with the Lark Street (Albany) incident of five New Year’s past, police officers saying that the 9 who were shot deserved it because they were “too stupid to duck.”

    I hope this costs NYC/NYPD millions per victim.

  2. Pete

    These cops were without doubt put in an awful situation. It sounds like they had very little, if any, time to consider the situation, and were forced to more or less instinctively react.

    Nonetheless, the fact that the cops fired sixteen shots in this crowded area bothers me. At some point prior to putting the 10th bullet into Johnson, I think that ongoing evaluation of the situation probably should have revealed that additional shots were not merited based on the risks … this guy has been shot up pretty good, we’re wearing bullet proof vests, and people are everywhere.

  3. SHG

    I suspect that any cop will tell you that once the finger starts twitching, it’s hard to stop until the magazine is empty. Not being a shooter, I can’t speak from personal experience.

  4. Pete

    True, but I can think of many fast paced, high adrenaline situations where participants have been trained to be able to slam on the breaks.. For instance, boxers halt in mid-punch when they hear the bell. Football players are penalized for tackles that occur after the whistle. I suspect that the difference that makes it hard for the cop to stop shooting is that he has been trained not to stop shooting.

  5. JKB

    You can discharge 3 or 4 rounds before the perception that the person is falling from the first penetrates. The rule is to fire until the threat is stopped. This guy take a fair bit of time (in gunfight time) to fall. That might be due to early misses or it just took that long for the system to collapse releasing his muscles from earlier damage.

    I suspect this will go down as suicide by cop since the guy seems calm, could have easily put several rounds into the cops before they came to bear and the fact he knew he was almost out of ammo.

  6. Nigel Declan

    A very thorough investigation is warranted. While the officers did not want the murderer to get away, was it necessary to approach an armed, alleged murderer on a busy sidewalk, where there was a very high likelihood of an innocent person getting shot? Even if the shooting of Mr. Johnson was completely justified, I don’t see how that establishes a civil defense for the officers in a suit for negligence, battery or whatnot. The fact that they may have had every right to shoot at Mr. Johnson does not, to my knowledge, serve as a defense to the claim that they chose to confront him and open fire in a crowded sidewalk. They have a duty of care to all the bystanders not to discharge their firearms in a way likely to harm the bystanders, however justified they might have been in firing at Mr. Johnson.

    In any event, I certainly hope that the NYPD/NYC has to pay significant damages to the victims. They are in the better position to have protected against the harms, they breached the duty of care and it is the actions of two officers that caused the harms. Note that I am not saying that the officers necessarily committed a criminal act or even an immoral act (I offer no opinion on either), but that they likely committed a tortious one and the NYPD should compensate the victims accordingly, ideally of its own volition.

  7. Lurker

    How on earth can you have a system like this? Can it really be so that if police cause harm to civilians they are not liable? Here in Europe, the police and fire department are (In all countries I’m familiar with) always liable for the damages caused by their forcible measures.

    I would venture that this should also be the case under the common law. The state is responsible for maintaining the King’s peace. If it is broken, the state should be responsible for damage caused. And an officer shooting an innocent individual is definitely a breach of King’s peace.

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