The fatal shooting of Timothy Stansbury, Jr., by a NYPD officer is a calamity for Stansbury’s family and a stain on the police department. Officer Richard Neri shot the unarmed 19-year-old while patrolling the roof of a Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project late last Saturday night. Neri and his partner went to open a door when it unexpectedly flew open, sending Neri’s partner reeling backwards. Startled, Neri shot Stansbury, who was standing on the other side.
Politicians and community leaders are right to demand a review of police holstering policies—Neri was patrolling with his gun unholstered—to prevent such accidents in the future. But with depressing predictability, the usual suspects are portraying the shooting as a race incident, and their self-serving efforts to do so are poisoning the city.
City Councilman Charles Barron has called the accident a “cold blooded killing” and attributes it to white officers’ racist perception that all blacks are a threat. Lt. Eric Adams from the organization One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement argues that any officer who patrols a building with his gun unholstered is motivated by irrational fear and should not be on the force. True to form, the New York Times has lovingly amplified this conceit of ignorant white cops spooked by quiet, peace-loving black neighborhoods.
One day after the shooting, the Times’s front-page analysis began: “To police officers, the roofs of the city’s housing projects are netherworlds of crime and threat . . .. But to residents, they are places of everyday convenience, . . . a pebbled illusion of space and open skies, even a picnic ground.” In other words, only in the paranoid minds of police officers are these carefree, bucolic spaces dangerous; in reality, they are little different from an amusement park.
The Times drove home the theme of clueless suburban white cops at sea in black urban communities with a snide yet sentimental sidebar comparing the communal atmosphere of a housing project with the up-tight anomie of the suburbs: “In the Louis Armstrong Houses in Brooklyn [where Stansbury lived and was shot] . . . lives are jumbled together. Extended families share apartments. Nicknames are familiar and people traverse smoothly from one building to the next and back again by way of the rooftop. That is not how life is where the officer who fired the fatal shot, Richard S. Neri, Jr., calls home. [Wantagh, L.I.] is built around keeping people separated. Obstacles to an easy flow of neighborly life are evident: few of the sidewalks are shoveled.” (The Times did not bother to find out how many tenants of the Armstrong Houses actually shovel their own sidewalks, rather than relying on city workers to do it for them, a luxury that the working class residents of Neri’s town do not have. Nor did it determine whether anyone uses nicknames in Wantagh.)
The litany of charges that has followed the shooting—that Neri shot Stansbury because he was black; that only a paranoid racist would have his gun unholstered patrolling the city’s housing projects; that the higher rate of black than white victims of police shootings reflects bias—is false. Here are the facts:
The city’s housing projects, especially the roofs and hallways, are dangerous—not just in the minds of officers, but also in reality. Drug dealers hone their shooting skills on the roofs and launch projectiles such as bicycles or rocks (known as “air-mail”) at cops on the sidewalks below. Officers rounding corners on the roofs of projects have been shot at. Rapists drag their victims up to “the pebbled illusion of space and open skies,” as the New York Times calls public housing roofs, and violate them in the pastoral quiet. Criminals seek out housing projects for sanctuary and for predation. When Andre Shobey, a paroled career rapist/robber, went on a fatal one-day crime spree on January 21, he hit three housing projects, shooting a woman in a Bronx project, nearly decapitating a mentally impaired babysitter in a Queens project, and raping a 15-year-old girl on the roof of a Manhattan project.
The Louis Armstrong Houses, where Stansbury was shot, are even more dangerous than most. Crime there rose 31 percent last year, compared to a 5 percent drop in Brooklyn projects overall. At the end of 2003 and beginning of 2004, there was a shooting incident every other day in and around the Armstrong development. The rate of felonious assaults at the project was one per 107 residents in 2003, compared with a citywide rate of one per 427 residents. On New Year’s Eve 2002, parolee Barja Walter tried (unsuccessfully) to shoot three officers to death outside the Armstrong Houses before fleeing inside the project.
It is not irrational for an officer to anticipate danger when patrolling the roofs of city housing developments, and that sense of danger has to do with crime, not race. Indeed, Neri, an 11-year housing cop, has reportedly said that he was trained to patrol with his gun unholstered. Yet the NYPD’s record of policing housing projects, like its record in the city overall, is on average a model of restraint. The police captured the pathological Andre Shobey and homicidal parolee Barja Walter without firing a shot. NYPD officers conducted nearly 400,000 vertical patrols in public and private housing in 2003 without shooting anyone. Few big city departments can make a better per capita showing on police shootings.
Crime, not the desire to oppress black people, is what sends cops to inner city neighborhoods and public housing projects. In 1998, 62 percent of the victims of violent assaults identified their assailant as black, even though blacks are only 25 percent of the population. That means that when the police are trying to guard the community against violent criminals, they will focus their efforts disproportionately on black neighborhoods.
If the crime rates on Park Avenue were the same as those in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the police would be out in force there, too. And the risk of being shot by the police would go up commensurately. The more officers patrolling a neighborhood, and the more police-civilian contacts that occur, the greater the chance that a civilian in that neighborhood will be the victim of an officer error. Tragically, unlike in most professions, police errors can be fatal.
Though Neri has yet to tell his story publicly, the New York Post reports that he responded reflexively to the door bursting open and was not aware of lifting his gun and shooting. It is unlikely that he even registered Stansbury’s race in the split second before firing or would have reacted any differently had Stansbury been white. To call the killing “cold-blooded,” as Charles Barron has done, is demagoguery.
The NYPD must do everything it can to minimize the chance of unjustified officer shootings. The Department’s training is already cutting-edge, but if anything can improve public safety without putting officers’ lives at risk, it should be implemented. A thorough review of the shooting, the tactics that generated it, and strategies for avoiding such tragedies in the future must be forthcoming. But in a force the size of the NYPD, the sad fact is that there will always be a risk of officer error.
Beyond improved training, there are two ways to reduce the chance of officer mistakes in black neighborhoods: arbitrarily decrease the number of officers patrolling or decrease the amount of crime. Neri and his partner would not have been on the Louis Armstrong roofs on January 24 if the project did not generate a disproportionate level of felonies. However inexcusable Stansbury’s death, he stood a much higher chance of getting shot by a civilian than by a cop. Charles Barron and Eric Adams would make a far greater contribution to saving innocent black lives by demonizing criminals, rather than the police. The next time a thug shoots a law-abiding civilian, let’s hope Barron launches an equally fervent campaign against the cold-blooded killer.