The Curious Quiet Around Peter Liang

The trial of New York City Police Officer Peter Liang is beginning. Who, you ask?  Liang, the cop who killed Akai Gurley.  There was no question that Gurley did nothing, absolutely nothing, to justify dying at the end of a cop’s bullet, yet there are no protests, no cries of “no justice, no peace,” for his death. And the cops don’t give a damn about what happens to one of their own either.

What gives?

In the scheme of things to get outraged about, this just doesn’t make it onto the radar.  There is no venal intent, so no one seems capable of getting too worked up about a black kid’s death. This time.

Liang is not accused of intentionally shooting Gurley, who was walking in the unlit stairwell with his girlfriend. The bullet ricocheted off the wall and struck Gurley in the chest.

Prosecutors have said Liang acted recklessly by drawing his weapon in the first place. They have also said he and his partner argued for minutes about whether to report the shot for fear of discipline, though prosecutors have not released evidence suggesting the two officers immediately realized someone had been wounded.

People knowledgeable about the use and handling of firearms are quick to point out that there is no such thing as an accidental shooting. That assumes proper training and proper handling, which may be an assumption too far in the case of a police officer.

The rule is don’t put your finger on a trigger unless you intend to pull it, and if there is no finger on a trigger, there is no chance of discharge. It wouldn’t seem too difficult to let cops in on this one weird trick that prevents killing someone who doesn’t need to die.

There was more to what happened here than Liang’s merely unholstering his gun.  He had a finger on the trigger guard, where it slipped and caused a bullet to discharge. He had the gun in his hand as he turned a door knob. He was, at the absolute minimum, insufferably careless.

But was he reckless?

3. “Recklessly.” A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. 

The critical feature of the criminal mens rea of recklessness is that the defendant be “aware of and consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk.”  It distinguishes negligence, failing to exercise that quantum of care that is expected of a reasonable person,” from a crime.  Was the risk of mistaken discharge “substantial”?  Did Liang realize his incompetent handling of his weapon created such a risk, and then consciously disregard it?

Or, as his lawyers contend, was this just a tragic accident?

Liang, who is Chinese-American, has hired two former NYPD officers as his defense lawyers: Rae Koshetz, a former deputy commissioner who oversaw internal disciplinary trials for NYPD members for 14 years, and Robert Brown, a former captain.

Brown said Liang had committed no crime.

“It was just a terrible tragedy,” he said.

Well, obviously it was a terrible tragedy because an innocent man died, but that’s not a defense to a criminal charge.

At Fault Lines, Ken Womble sees the defense of Liang as a fairly easy sell, that the prosecution lacks the goods to turn this from an accident, simple negligence, to a crime.

The trial itself should be fascinating in that the jury will not be asked to pour over hours of surveillance video or weigh the merits of two completely different narratives. They will be asked to think, and think very hard.

So it would seem as though the prosecution, if they are to have any hope of conviction, will have to focus all of their efforts on the first question. Was it reckless for Liang to draw his gun under the circumstances?  Was it reckless for him to have his finger on the trigger while he opened the door to the stairwell?

This is the prosecution’s best bet, but only because they have no other bets. It will be quite difficult to convince a jury that it was legally unreasonable, beyond a reasonable doubt, for Liang to have taken his gun out and handled it as he did.

But as Ken goes on to note, there is a problem that won’t be on trial, though it’s far more important than whether one cop was careless or reckless in handling his weapon.

Put aside all the other things that have latched onto this case. Liang was sent into those projects because they are dangerous.  Getting spooked and pulling out one’s firearm while patrolling the Pink Houses might be an indication that Liang does not have what it takes to be a cop.  But that is a far cry from convincing twelve jurors that he is guilty of homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.

Prosecuting Liang for manslaughter won’t bring Akai Gurley back to life. It won’t be a data point in condemning the NYPD for having a murderous attitude toward young black men. While it might bring some comfort to Gurley’s family and loved ones, so too would a decent admission of wrongdoing with a check from the Comptroller’s office.

But what won’t be addressed at trial, and what does matter, is that the banal fear, the “spooked” of which Womble speaks, gives rise to a plethora of problems, all of which end up working out badly for people like Akai Gurley. Introduce guys with guns, with dubious training, questionable psychological profiles, a culture of fearing and having little care for minorities, and stir.  People end up dead, maimed or imprisoned.

As with the trial of Peter Liang, nobody cares all that much about banal harm. It’s just a fact of life. Sometimes, guns go off accidentally. Stercus accidit. But the harm of ordinary injustice, mundane incompetence, isn’t outrageous enough to capture our interest. Even though it ended Akai Gurley’s life.

23 comments on “The Curious Quiet Around Peter Liang

  1. REvers

    I have to make a couple of assumptions here, based on what I’ve been told over the years about NYPD:

    1. He was using a Glock, and
    2. It had the “New York Trigger” installed.

    If those assumptions are correct, the chance of his finger slipping off the trigger guard and activating the trigger are essentially zero. The New York Trigger requires an 11-12 pound pull. That’s a lot. You should try one sometime if you don’t believe me. You have to WANT that trigger to move.

      1. DaveL

        More than likely, he wanted to shoot near-blindly, at some indistinct man-sized shape, and simply missed and hit the wall. The NYPD is partically legendary for their poor marksmanship, and this same custom trigger is part of the reason.

    1. wish

      you don’t even know the pressure under fear and life endanger when accidentally missed fire and pulling the trigger without any stress is different, he has no intention to shoot anybody, it is the way to be alert and to protect from danger, the bullet hit the wall first , not shoot the person directly. please be more mercy and use more sense. This is racial issue for this case for guilty and not justice, all juror are racists, not judge by heart.

  2. EH

    Not that one would ever expect consistency from the system, but I can’t help noting the distinction between “reasonably predictable that as a result of drinking and driving, an officer will get killed during a DUI stop” and “not predictable that as a result of walking around with a loaded gun and finger on trigger, someone will get shot.”

    Of course, one one of those defendants is a cop.

    1. SHG Post author

      Perhaps it would help you if you recognized that the latter case doesn’t turn on predictability at all, but on the mens rea of recklessness. These are the legal concepts that a lawyer would consider and apply. You should try them.

      1. EH

        Yes, I know. But it’s often judged in hindsight, is it not? When disfavored folks do things, the outcomes are adjudged ‘predictable’ and ‘highly risky’ and ‘obvious,’ and therefore they lose. When favored folks do things, the outcomes are adjudged ‘expected’ and ‘unusual’ and ‘rare’ and therefore they win.

        If a black male permit-holding resident walked into that same stairwell and, fearing whatever Liang feared, shot a wall and killed Liang (who was patrolling one floor down.) Would we even be debating the likely outcome? I doubt it.

        1. SHG Post author

          No. No. No. You are not excused from anything remotely resembling rational thought. You don’t get to conflate wholly unrelated legal concepts and make people stupider any more than anyone else.

  3. Patrick Maupin

    Liang was sent into those projects because they are dangerous.

    There are a lot of dangerous places — inside steel mills, down smokestacks, etc. — that we don’t normally send cops, so obviously this isn’t the full story.

    Could it be, perhaps, that ordinary people actually live in this particular dangerous place, and Liang’s job was to reduce the danger level?

  4. Noxx

    Col. Cooper famously said that there is no such thing as an accidental discharge. I agree, as do millions of others who handle firearms. Liang knew what a bullet can do to a person, he knew beforehand (by any training standard anywhere) that discharging the weapon is both irrevocable and carries the potential for deadly harm.

    From my armchair, this meets the standard of recklessness. I have little confidence that those who judge Liang will agree.

  5. losingtrader

    ” one weird trick that prevents killing someone who doesn’t need to die..”

    gee, I ‘m disappointed.
    This started out like it was going to be a “click bait”ad for the Motley Fool, but then there was no misuse of Warren Buffet’s name or likeness.
    Maybe he can be killed off in one of your next posts.

  6. dm

    Sympathetic muscle contraction.
    When not consciously thinking about the act (such as when scared/surprised/adrenaline pumped) all the fingers tend to curl into a grip even when the grip is attempted with less than all of the fingers. It’s a phenomenon known as sympathetic muscle contraction.

    The google search: “sympathetic muscle ayoob” will get you to articles about the phenomenon.

    So, while I believe this shooting demonstrates gross incompetence in training, I don’t believe the mens rea requirement can be met if a strong defense, including sympathetic muscle contraction, is presented.

    1. REvers

      Even more evidence of recklessnes, I’d say. Or perhaps evidence of exactly why it’s reckless to walk around with a finger on the trigger.

    2. William Doriss

      Sympathetic muscle contraction,… unsympathetic reductio absurdum-breath. (We simpley luv Latinisms!)
      Are you, or have you ever been, a neurologist or neurological researcher? Pray tell! How do you like them apples?
      You did not answer the question as to why Offcr. Liang’s fingers were in the wrong position as to render
      “sympathetic contraction” upon an unsuspecting, law-abiding citizen in the “wrong place at the wrong time”, to begin with? Hey, hey! W/O “reasonable man” justification. Nice try, but you got it wrong. Another case of Google-Mania gone awry. If you are afraid for your life, well then don’t become a cop. That is a decision a Reasonable Man would make. Next!
      Finally, if you want to talk nuances of neurology, make sure you go to med school and and have bona fides.

      1. dm

        Well Mr. Dorriss, I’ll give you credit for at least weaving together a paragraph that conveys some point, unlike most of your scribblings. That being said, sympathetic muscle contraction is well-known in the firearms community and has been written about by Massad Ayoob (among others) at length. As you seem a bit too obtuse to realize it, lawyers HIRE experts (like a neurologist) to testify at trial (I’m pretty sure the jury is not composed of neurologists). Finally, some instructors improperly teach handgun shooters to index along the front of the trigger guard rather than along the bottom of the trigger guard (which puts the trigger in the line of the index finger).

      2. dm

        P.S. Mr. Dorriss, If you flip over to my comment at Fault Lines on the same subject you’ll find the link for “Involuntary Muscle Contractions and the Unintentional Discharge of a Firearm” by Roger M. Enoka, Ph.D. (Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado – Boulder). I appreciate that “learnin” is not your strong suit, but you might give it a try before you respond. Regards!

        1. DaveL


          In what journal was this paper published? His CV shows it in “Law Enforcement Executive Forum”, which is not a scientific publication.

        2. William Doriss

          Thanx for the tip, and the compliment. I have “involuntary muscle contractions” in my sleep.

          Hey, there’s a reason why I’m not an academic, and there’s a reason why I’m not in law enforcement. Does that make me a bad guy? I make a living the honest way, even if I do say so myself. Peace, brother!
          Finally, we don’t “scribble”; we paint graphic pictures, not covered by the straight press.
          See my UTubes, two under Doriss, and one under Dorris. They’re not great, but it’s me.
          Yes indeed! (Am not retracting one word.) Oh, I do have a “doctor’s degree”, but don’t use it, not lately anyhow.

            1. William Doriss

              You are up early! How did you know we just rented a box truck? (Bad move.) You are
              a mind -reader. We collect box turtles as well. They are cheaper and don’t use as much fuel.

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