Widgets Magazine


The Asian scapegoat

On Feb. 11, a New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn convicted an NYPD officer of manslaughter. While patrolling an apartment building in 2014, the officer accidentally discharged his gun in the hallway, and the bullet ricocheted off a wall and killed an unarmed African American man and father of two, Akai Gurley, age 28. He then failed to give the man first aid before leaving the building. Upon hearing the facts, the jury deliberated for less than two days before they convicted the officer, who now faces up to 15 years in jail time.

Now, this seems like a pretty decent instance where the legal process has successfully handled injustice in a case of police brutality and misconduct. After all, there was an indictment, a verdict and a fairly substantial punishment. Obviously, this is still far from perfect – after all, if the system were really perfect, the unarmed innocent civilian wouldn’t be dead to begin with. But when compared to the generally abysmal track record of our criminal justice system in delivering actual justice to the victims of police brutality, this is indeed a surprisingly improved outcome. In fact, even the sterilely impartial article from The New York Times on the conviction couldn’t help but comment on this element of the story, noting that this case was, indeed, “a rare instance in which a police officer was convicted of killing someone in the line of duty.

So, what makes this case different?

Well, one difference might be that the officer in question is Peter Liang, an Asian American.

Since 2005, despite thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of on-duty police officers, there have only been 54 officers who were even indicted, and among that group, Liang is only the 12th person to be convicted.

Of those thousands of civilian deaths, 121 were due to  on-duty NYPD officers (and that number increases to 179 if we include off-duty officers). Of those 121, only five were ever indicted. And of those, Liang is the only one to be convicted.

That’s right, Peter Liang was the only NYPD officer to be convicted of killing a civilian in the last decade.

And of course, it is only by pure chance that he happens to be Asian-American, despite the fact that Asians make up less than four percent of the NYPD, right?

Liang faces up to 15 years in prison. If sentenced to that, Liang’s sentence would also be the harshest given to any on-duty officer for the killing of a civilian in the past decade. Of the 11 other officers to be convicted this decade, none received a sentence of over ten years.

Among those 11 is Johannes Mehserle, the cop who infamously shot Oscar Grant in the back while he was down on the ground, face down and hands behind his back. For a clearly more egregious crime, Mehserle received barely a year – he was sentenced in November 2010 and was out by the next summer.

And Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who was caught on video killing Eric Garner, who posed no physical threat, by placing him in a clearly illegal chokehold for up to 19 seconds – during which Garner stated that he couldn’t breathe 11 times – wasn’t even indicted. Also, it’s worth noting that neither Pantaleo nor the three other officers present nor the four EMT workers that arrived later gave Garner CPR or first aid, much like in Liang’s case.

But despite committing a crime that is clearly not any more egregious than those, Peter Liang doesn’t seem to be able to get away as lightly.

This is not justice; this is indefensible.

If we are talking strictly about holding police accountable for misconduct and excessive force in the death of Akai Gurley, then, yes, Liang’s conviction is indeed a great victory. However, in the larger scheme of things – that is, in the pursuit of bringing real reform to police, ending police brutality and ending racism – the conviction of a scapegoat, especially when it’s another person of color like Liang, is absolutely nothing to celebrate. Because at the end of the day, the black guy is dead, the Asian cop is in prison, and the white killer cops still walk free.


Contact Terence Zhao at terencezhao@stanford.edu 


  • chamelean75

    I read about this case in the nytimes. I am Asian. This case was decided upon by a jury. Juries are randomly selected and both parties must agree to have each jury member. When this story came out as with other police shooting stories and the George Zimmerman shooting, there were many accusations of prejudice and racism. People called out that X should have been guilty/ not guilty. I am torn on the matter. Be cause this case and many like it were decided by a randomly picked jury, sayin

  • Sam

    My two cents. Having served on a couple of juries, my impression is that the system is quite flawed. Citizens inexperienced in the law, and ranging from the near illiterate to highly educated professionals (who rarely survive the jury selection process anyway because either the prosecution or the defense or both prefer to have jurors who are not trained to think critically), are asked to weigh complex issues, throw away their biases, and make a decision that can have serious consequences to a human being. There have been jurors I have served with that have made me cringe, and who I would not wish to sit judgement on my worst enemy. I am not at all surprised that there could be strong racial biases in jury decisions, as possibly with this NY case. Although I found the overall experience unique, informative, and challenging, I have come to the conclusion that having professional lawyers argue before a panel of judges may be a better alternative, as it is in many other countries. If IBM’s Watson, or its AI successor, get to the point where machines can weigh the totality of the evidence and come to an impartial conclusion, this might ultimately be the best way to go in the future. However, it will still be important to have a panel of professionally trained judges to review all or some of the decisions, to keep some element of human input still involved in matters pertaining to other human beings.

  • chamelean75

    I have yet to serve on a Jury though I am called every year for two roll calls (one in the morning and one in the afternoon). The problem with having a panel of judges is that you get into the conservative vs liberal stances. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to have a jury whether it’s made up of judges, educated citizens or uneducated citizens who don’t have biases or prejudices.

    I wish Terrance discussed more of the actual legal court system and what we could do to have a more consistent verdict than
    “Because at the end of the day, the black guy is dead, the Asian cop is in prison, and the white killer cops still walk free. ” The issues are much deeper and complex than that statement above.