The body of Timothy Stansbury Jr. had yet to be removed from a Brooklyn hospital before the politics of his death eclipsed the tragedy of it.
On January 24 at about 1:30 A.M., 19-year-old Stansbury and two friends took the stairs to the roof of a Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project, intending to take a shortcut to a party in an adjacent building. Outside the stairwell door were two uniformed NYPD officers on a “vertical patrol” of the buildings. All that is truly known is that the door was opened and Officer Richard Neri, an eleven-year veteran of the department, shot Stansbury once in the chest. The officers summoned an ambulance, but Stansbury was soon pronounced dead at Woodhull Medical and Health Center. Everything beyond these few facts is sheer speculation.
But Neri is white and Stansbury was black, so speculation–the most corrosive type–is naturally the order of the day. Speaking to reporters hours after the shooting, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly labeled it as “unjustified” even though Neri had yet to give a statement. Kelly’s characterization was greeted with derision by rank-and-file members of the department, who perceived that one of their own was being sacrificed in the name of “peace in the community.” An NYPD captain summed it up for me in an e-mail message: “When there’s a great arrest, the commissioner and the brass trip over themselves to take the credit and get a photo op. But when the storm clouds roll in and they are faced with adversity, their true character shines through and they cut the poor cop loose to fend for himself.” In speaking out as he did, Kelly indeed revealed himself to be more politician than cop, abandoning a subordinate in trouble so as to do the bidding of the mayor at whose pleasure he serves. For his part, Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose not to make a public statement the day after the shooting, referring media inquiries to Kelly’s office, but he did make a show of going up to Brooklyn and visiting Stansbury’s family.
But Kelly’s speculation on the shooting was tame, even palatable, when compared to that put forth by Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron, a man who has pushed the art of racial hucksterism to a level that would make even Al Sharpton blink. Barron arrived at Stansbury’s home at six A.M. the morning of the shooting, which he described as a “cold-blooded killing.” To make matters worse, he prevented Stansbury’s two friends from speaking with investigators until the following Monday, when he personally delivered them to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. “The best thing we did was not to give our witnesses to the police department,” he said. His use of the word “our” raises the troubling possibility that the witnesses’ accounts may have been tailored to conform with a version of events envisioned by Barron, whose presence will be all but inescapable as the investigation and expected litigation move forward. Barron has announced his intention to run for mayor, and he seemed almost gleeful at the opportunity to insert himself into the family’s tragedy; news photographs of him hugging Stansbury’s mother at the funeral were truly appalling. He has as much chance of becoming mayor as Sharpton does of becoming president, but like the Round Reverend he will exult in the sport of the campaign for as long as he can.
Not to be outdone, City Councilman Al Vann included in his eulogy for Stansbury a list of the minority men killed by police in controversial shootings in recent years, including Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond. “Young black boys and young black men have been shot and killed by mostly white policemen in this city,” Vann told a cheering crowd, leaving unmentioned the hundreds of minority men killed by other minority men in New York over the same period. If Vann had run down that list he’d still be in the pulpit reading off the names.
And this is the larger tragedy of Timothy Stansbury’s death. Barron and Vann and their acolytes in the racial-grievance industry would have people believe that the greatest threat to minority citizens comes from police officers (white ones, especially), and that the only guns or drugs to be found in Bedford-Stuyvesant and other minority neighborhoods are those that have been planted on innocent men by crooked, racist cops. Whatever becomes of Officer Neri, whatever reforms are instituted in the wake of Stansbury’s death, the most immediate consequence will be more violence and death in Brooklyn and elsewhere, for the controversy and all the accompanying rabble-rousing will only deter NYPD officers from doing what it takes to reduce crime in places such as Bedford-Stuyvesant. And the victims of this violence will of course be the very minorities Barron and Vann and all their followers and imitators claim to support.
There are legitimate questions to be raised in the investigation: Did Neri fire accidentally, or did he intentionally fire because he believed–albeit mistakenly–his life was in danger? If it was accidental, was Neri walking with his finger on the trigger of his weapon when he was startled? Should the NYPD adopt a stricter standard governing the unholstering of weapons? Stansbury’s family, and all New Yorkers, are owed answers to these questions, but when those answers come they will in all likelihood be lost in the overheated rhetoric of such as Barron and Vann. And when the bodies start stacking up at the morgue, neither Barron nor Vann nor any of the others will say a word about it.
UPDATE FROM INGLEWOOD
In related news from here on the other coast, a second Los Angeles jury has failed to reach a unanimous verdict in the case of Jeremy Morse, the former Inglewood, Calif. police officer charged in the videotaped confrontation with teenager Donovan Jackson. The first trial ended last July with the jurors deadlocked 7-5 for conviction, but in the trial that ended Friday the jury was evenly split. If Morse were an ordinary defendant the case surely would be dismissed, as it seems unlikely the prosecution would fare any better in a third trial. But Morse is not an ordinary defendant: he is a white cop (now an ex-cop) accused of assaulting a black teenager. District Attorney Steve Cooley is up for reelection soon, and though he faces no serious threat of being defeated, surely he is weighing the potential for political consequences as he decides whether to send Morse to another trial, one whose outcome would be no more satisfying to either side than the first two.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.