Is the $4 million Akai Gurley settlement enough to curb police brutality?

In a case that frustrated two major American minority groups, the family of Akai Gurley, a black man fatally shot by a New York City police officer, will receive more than $4 million in compensation.

Craig Ruttle/AP
Protesters attend a rally in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Feb. 20, in support of a former NYPD police officer Peter Liang, who was convicted of manslaughter for the 2014 shooting death of Akai Gurley, in a housing project stairwell.

In 2014 Akai Gurley was struck and killed by a bullet that had ricocheted off of a wall in the stairwell of his public housing building. On Tuesday, Mr. Gurely's family reportedly agreed to more than $4 million in the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit with New York City. 

But is this settlement – and others like it by American police departments – likely to change police behavior?

In January 2015, New York City paid $3.9 million to the family of Bronx teen Ramarley Graham, who was shot inside his home on in 2012 after being chased by an officer who thought he had a gun, reports the New York York Daily News

Six months later, the city paid $5.9 million to the estate of Eric Garner — who died after an undercover cop put him in an illegal chokehold in July 2014.

In September 2015, the city of Baltimore paid the family of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody, $6.4 million in the settlement of wrongful death suit. 

Some police departments have implemented reforms in the wake of such large settlements, but the recent trend suggests that message often might not be getting through.

“The idea is that these large settlements could deter widespread police misconduct,” Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former assistant United States attorney who now directs the criminal justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law, told The Christian Science Monitor after the Freddie Gray settlement.  But the proverbial jury is still out as to whether such settlements are effectively curbing police-related deaths.

The bullet that killed Gurley had been fired from the New York Police Department standard-issue 9mm Glock pistol in the hands of Chinese-American police officer Peter Liang. For many Gurley's death was another unjustified example of the killing of an African-American man by a police officer. Mr. Liang claimed he had been startled and flinched, causing a reaction that would ultimately end the life of another man and alter the path of his own life.

“My life is forever changed,” Liang said in his trial. “I hope you give me a chance to rebuild it.”

The subsequent trial was marked by frustration from both African-American and Asian-American protestors, many of whom stood outside the courtroom with Black Lives Matter signs written in English and Chinese.

Mr. Liang’s initial conviction of manslaughter angered some Asian-Americans, who saw him as a scapegoat in an attempt to pacify the ever-increasing tension over the killing of black men by police officers across the country. For many of the Black Lives Matter protestors, his conviction was finally a victory after a stream of acquittals over police-caused deaths.

That conviction led to the largest scale activism by Asian-Americans since the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Protesters wondered why Mr. Liang was put on trial when a number of white officers had not been charged in other police-related killings. They asked whether the New York Police Department was supporting Liang – an officer only one year out of the academy – sufficiently, as compared to other non-Asian officers in similar situations. His trial came in the wake of grand juries deciding not to convict the officers involved in the killing of fellow-New York City-resident Eric Garner, or of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“For 150 years, there’s been a common phrase in America: ‘Not a Chinaman’s chance,’ which means if you’re Chinese in America, there’s no hope for you,” said former NYC comptroller John Liu in an address to a crowd of protestors outside the trial, as reported by Gothamist.

When Liang’s conviction was downgraded from manslaughter and he was sentenced to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service, Mr. Gurley’s family was furious. 

“When you stole Akai's life, you stole mine as well,” Melissa Butler, Gurley’s girlfriend told Liang at the trial.

Now in a recently announced settlement, New York City will pay $4.1 million, with the New York City Housing Authority providing an additional $400,000 and Mr. Liang himself paying $25,000 to Gurley’s daughter, who will receive the money in structured payments once she reaches 18 years of age.

Scott Rynecki, who represents Mr. Gurley’s domestic partner, Kimberly Ballinger, and their 4-year-old daughter, Akaila Gurley, said of the settlement that Ms. Ballinger “looks forward to raising Akaila to be a productive member of society and someone Akai will be proud of,” according to The New York Times.

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