Only one man has 'blood on his hands' in NY police shootings, and that's the gunman

Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were shot by a gunman, who killed himself as fellow police officers closed in. Mayor DeBlasio may have bungled his relationship with the NYPD but that hardly makes him responsible for murder.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A policeman wearing a mourning band on his badge monitors a protest against the police in the Manhattan borough of New York on Tuesday. Mayor Bill de Blasio's attempts to soothe a city dismayed by Saturday's slaying of two officers were further rebuffed as protesters defied his call to suspend what have become regular demonstrations over excessive police force.

On Saturday, two New York City Police officers were shot and killed while sitting in their patrol car by a man who who apparently had traveled to New York for express purpose of killing police in revenge for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown:

Two police officers sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn were shot at point-blank range and killed on Saturday afternoon by a man who, officials said, had traveled to the city from Baltimore vowing to kill officers. The suspect then committed suicide with the same gun, the authorities said.

The officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were in the car near Myrtle and Tompkins Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the shadow of a tall housing project when the gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, walked up to the passenger-side window and assumed a firing stance, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said. Mr. Brinsley shot several rounds into the heads and upper bodies of the officers, who never drew their weapons, the authorities said.

Mr. Brinsley, 28, then fled down the street and onto the platform of a nearby subway station, where he killed himself as officers closed in. The police recovered a silver semiautomatic handgun, Mr. Bratton said.

Mr. Brinsley, who had a long rap sheet of crimes that included robbery and carrying a concealed gun, is believed to have shot his former girlfriend near Baltimore before traveling to Brooklyn, the authorities said. He made statements on social media suggesting that he planned to kill police officers and was angered about the Eric Garner and Michael Brown case

Authorities in Baltimore sent a warning that Mr. Brinsley had made these threats, but it was received in New York at essentially the same time as the killings, officials said.

The shootings, the chase, the suicide of Mr. Brinsley and the desperate but failed bid to save the lives of the officers – their uniforms soaked in blood – turned a busy commercial intersection on the Saturday before Christmas into a scene of pandemonium.

The manager of a liquor store at the corner, Charlie Hu, said the two police officers were slouched over in the front seat of their patrol car. Both of them appeared to have been shot in the head, Mr. Hu said, and one of the officers had blood spilling out of his face.

“Today two of New York’s finest were shot and killed with no warning, no provocation,” Mr. Bratton said at Woodhull Hospital in Williamsburg, where the officers were declared dead. “They were, quite simply, assassinated – targeted for their uniform and for the responsibility they embraced to keep the people of this city safe.”

“Officer Ramos and Officer Liu never had the opportunity to draw their weapons,” he continued. “They may have never even seen the assailant, their murderer.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, standing beside the police commissioner, said, “It is an attack on all of us; it’s an attack on everything we hold dear.”

Mr. de Blasio said he had met with the officers’ families, including Officer Ramos’s 13-year-old son, who “couldn’t comprehend what had happened to his father.”

Late Saturday night, President Obama condemned the “murder of two police officers in New York City,” noting that officers who serve their communities “deserve our respect and gratitude every single day. Tonight, I ask people to reject violence and words that harm, and turn to words that heal – prayer, patient dialogue, and sympathy for the friends and family of the fallen.”

The double killing comes at a moment when protests over police tactics have roiled the city and other parts of the nation. Since a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges in the case of Mr. Garner, a black Staten Island man who died after a police chokehold in July, protesters have filled the streets on numerous occasions. Those protests followed more violent ones in Ferguson, Mo., after there were no charges in the police shooting of Mr. Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

The mayor has taken care to praise officers’ work repeatedly since the grand jury decision, but he has stressed the rights of protesters to express themselves and spoken of his personal experience instructing his biracial son, Dante, to “take special care” during any police encounters.

Some union leaders suggested the mayor had sent a message that police officers were to be feared. Cries for the police to use more restraint have been buttressed by historic drops in violent crime. The city has seen roughly 300 killings so far this year, a number so low as to be unheard-of two decades ago.

But the shooting on Saturday seemed reminiscent of decades past, when the city was mired in an epidemic of drugs and violence and, in 1988, a police officer was shot while he sat alone in his patrol car guarding the home of a man who had testified in a drug case. That killing shook the city, sparking an escalation in the war on drugs and an aggressive crackdown on violent crime. Mr. Bratton said that the attack on Saturday was the seventh time since 1972 that partners in the Police Department had been killed at the same time.

Even as the news about the shootings was still just being developed yesterday, reports began to spread that the shootings were something more than just a normal police shooting, to the extent that there is such a thing, and was related, at least in the gunman’s mind, to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the protests that have been going on, on a nearly daily basis, in various parts of New York City in the month since the grand jury announced that there would be no indictment in the Garner case, which followed a similar announcement out of Missouri in the Michael Brown case. What seems apparent, though, is that the killer in this case, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, is a man with a long criminal record who seems to have latched on to the Garner and Brown cases opportunistically: 

Hours after Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot a former girlfriend in Maryland on Saturday, he returned to New York, his place of birth, armed with a gun and harboring intentions to attack police officers, officials said.

He would do so by the afternoon, they said, killing two New York City police officers in an ambush shooting in Brooklyn and then killing himself.

By the end of the day, detectives were combing through the life of Mr. Brinsley, 28, who has ties to East Flatbush and whose last known address appeared to be in Atlanta, said William J. Bratton, the police commissioner.

His recent arrest history, mostly in Georgia and Ohio, depicted a man familiar with the criminal use of firearms — but without any apparent acts of serious violence that would have anticipated the sort of premeditated killing of police officers that Mr. Bratton called an “assassination” and that Mayor Bill de Blasio said had been done “execution-style.”

Mr. Brinsley was arrested on robbery charges in Ohio in 2009 and weapons possession in Georgia, court records showed. Investigators in New York believe he had been in the city as recently as 2011 when he was a suspect in a harassment case.

Later that year, he was convicted of felony gun possession in Georgia, and sentenced to two years in prison. It was not immediately clear when he was released from custody.

Reached by phone at her Georgia home, a woman who identified herself as Mr. Brinsley’s sister said she had not seen him in two years. She said she did not remember hearing her brother express anger at police officers. “I need to call my mom,” she said before hanging up.

It was not immediately clear what brought Mr. Brinsley to Baltimore County. But he was there Saturday around 5:45 a.m., when the authorities said he shot the former girlfriend, 29, in the stomach, wounding her in her apartment in Owings Mills, Md.

Soon after, messages began appearing on the woman’s Instagram account, believed to have been posted by Mr. Brinsley, that carried some “very antipolice” messages, Mr. Bratton said at a news conference on Saturday evening. Based on the postings, Baltimore County authorities determined one of them had come from Brooklyn. They said they placed a call to the 70th Police Precinct in New York City around 2:10 p.m.

By 2:45 p.m., law enforcement officials in Baltimore County had warned their counterparts in New York and elsewhere to be on the lookout, sending around a digital warning poster with Mr. Brinsley’s face and history. Around that time, the police said, Mr. Brinsley walked up to a marked squad car on a Brooklyn street with a silver semiautomatic handgun and opened fire at the two police officers inside, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

The Instagram  account in question can no longer be accessed, which is typical in these situations, but it wasn’t long after the shootings that links to the last two postings had gone viral, and their links to the shooting were quite apparent as more details were released:

While police in New York have not acknowledged a link between these two posts and the shooting, the gun depicted in the first post does match the description of the silver pistol that was recovered from the body of the shooter after he had shot himself, and the pants depicted in the second photo match those of the body photographed being removed from the subway station near the scene where the gunman is known to have killed himself. Additionally, as noted above, police in Baltimore did send an alert to New York after family members of the shooter’s girlfriend had noticed the Instagram postings. Unfortunately, the alert came too late, arriving just moments before Brinsley opened fire on the two officers while they were apparently doing nothing more than eating lunch in their car. Overnight, the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown both issued statements of sympathy for victims of the shooting and denounced those who would purport to commit violence in the names of their loved ones. Protesters in New York, who continue to gather on an almost nightly basis to protest the outcome in the Garner matter, also expressed sympathy for victims of the shootings, and the entire NYPD just seemed to be in a state of shock. Perhaps most important for New York City, though, is the fact that the shooting comes at a time of extraordinary tension with city leaders in general and Mayor Bill DeBlasio in particular:

It is the sequence that every mayor dreads: the ominous report, the scramble to the hospital and the confirmation that, yes, an attack against the police has proved fatal.

But for Mayor Bill de Blasio, the tragedy on Saturday – when two police officers were shot and killed in an ambush in Brooklyn, according to the authorities – arrived at a particularly trying moment, amid an already fractious relationship with the police.

Police union leaders and officers could be seen turning their backs to the mayor and the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, as they walked past, in a video taken at the hospital where the two held a news conference on Saturday.

A written message from Edward Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, addressed the mayor directly. “Mayor de Blasio,” it read in part, “the blood of these two officers is clearly on your hands.”

For weeks, New York City has been the roiling epicenter of a national reckoning over the police and race, attracting nightly protests since a Staten Island grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against a white police officer in the case of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after a chokehold in July.

Police union leaders have condemned the mayor for what they have called insufficient support of the police; they have circulated a letter allowing officers to request that he not attend their funerals in the event of a line-of-duty death.

At the news conference on Saturday, at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, the mayor tried to deflect focus on the recent tensions. He said it was “a time to think about these families” and not “a time for politics or political analysis.”

Asked on Saturday about the turned backs and union messages, Phil Walzak, the mayor’s press secretary, said it was “unfortunate that in a time of great tragedy, some would resort to irresponsible, overheated rhetoric that angers and divides people.”

During the briefing, Mr. de Blasio largely deferred to Mr. Bratton. The mayor recalled the emotional scene with the families of the officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, at the hospital. The 13-year-old son of Officer Ramos, the mayor said gravely, “couldn’t comprehend what had happened to his father.”

The murder of an officer, he said, “is an attack on all of us.”

Even before the shooting, the mayor – who has staked his tenure, in part, on a pledge to reshape the Police Department, healing rifts between communities and their officers in the process – had been engaged in a high-wire act of sorts.

He has sought to express sympathy for the protesters, many of whom have placed their faith in the mayor to turn back what they see as years of overreaching by the police, and support for the officers, who remain wary, in many circles, of his designs.

Amid the protests, Mr. de Blasio had already been forced to confront the specter of violence against the police. Last Saturday, two police lieutenants were attacked during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Speaking at a police promotions ceremony on Friday, the mayor seemed to provide an unwitting preview of his Saturday remarks. “Any act of violence against our police officers,” he told a packed auditorium at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan, “is an act of violence against our values.”

Many lawmakers and protesters expressed sympathy and gratitude for the police on Saturday. Some advocates noted that mourning the deaths of officers and deaths at the hands of officers were not mutually exclusive.

Yet by Saturday night, it seemed clear that the dialogue over policing in the city remained fraught.

As is often the case, much of what’s going on here between the police unions and the mayor’s office is political in nature. It’s something anyone who has observed New York City politics, or indeed the politics of any big city, in the past would be readily familiar with. To groups like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), as well as others who are sympathetic to the police, anything other than absolute loyalty to the police department is a betrayal, and DeBlasio crossed that line when he expressed, at least, the slightest degree of sympathy for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who were outraged over the fact that the Staten Island grand jury had refused to indict any of the officers involved in the death of Eric Garner, notwithstanding a video that seems to show, at least to the layman, clear evidence of at least probable cause for a case of the excessive use of force for what was, in the end, a relatively minor offense. Indeed, it isn’t even clear from the available evidence that Garner was committing any offense at all at the time the police began questioning him. In any event, DeBlasio didn’t completely side with the police in the immediate wake of the Garner decision and this appears to be the basis for the near constant denunciations that have come his way from the police unions in the weeks since then, as well as the efforts of some PBA officials to get patrolmen to sign statements saying that they would not want the mayor at their funerals, as is the custom, should they die in the line of duty. To some extent, part of this can be blamed on the fact that DeBlasio does not appear to have the same relationship with the police that previous mayors have had, especially Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Additionally, his opposition to policies such as “stop and frisk” and the efforts to bring that practice to an end has not gone over well with the NYPD rank and file. Once the Garner protests started and DeBlasio expressed at least some sympathy for the people in the streets, there was already enough bad blood between the NYPD. Now, with union officials openly saying that the mayor has “blood on his hands” and officers showing open disrespect to him, it only appears as if it’s going to get worse. Given that New York City is the largest city in the country, this kind of tension between the police and the political leadership is bound make waves in the future.

Let’s be clear about one thing, though, the idea that Mayor DeBlasio has “blood on his hands” in connection with the murders of Officers Ramos and Liu is utterly absurd. There is only one person who is responsible for the deaths of those two men, and he shot himself in the head on a subway platform shortly after he murdered them. Politically, DeBlasio may or may not have bungled his relationship with the NYPD during his first year in office, but that hardly makes him responsible for murder. Additionally, the fact that the mayor may have expressed some sympathy for the people who were protesting the Garner decision is neither outrageous nor inappropriate. For one thing, it’s worth noting that he is the mayor of all the people in New York, not just the police officers, and that, as the elected leader of the city, it is his job, in part, to be responsive to the concerns of civilians who see what they think is an injustice being committed by the police department and the justice system. The argument that being willing to listen to those protesters makes any political leader responsible for the actions of a violent criminal thug who traveled some 200 miles for the express purpose of committing murder is nonsense that ought to be rejected out of hand. As Nick Gillespie notes, though, the effort to blame others for what happened in Brooklyn is not new:

Just as Sarah Palin’s defense of gun rights has zero culpability in the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and Dallas’s right-wing “climate of hate”had nothing to do with Marxist-Leninist Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassinaton of JFK, it’s worth underscoring at every moment of what is already shaping up as a very ugly debate that the actual killer is the culprit here.

As the New York Daily News and other outlets are reporting, the apparent shooter was not only violent and unhinged but had bragged via Instagram that he was “putting wings on pigs” and “putting pigs in a blanket.”

The distance between such rantings and, even worse, the act of shooting policemen sitting in a patrol car, simply has no relation to legitimate and even impassioned criticism of the militarization of police and the protesting of specific acts of apparent injustice.

To suggest otherwise is not simply disgraceful and cheapening to serious public discourse. It’s all too often the first refuge of people on the right and the left who are afraid to actually engage in any sort of meaningful debate.

Unfortunately, I can already see from much of the online reaction to Saturday's tragedy that meaningful debate is the exact opposite of what is likely to occur. Much like the Brown shooting and the Garner death, and the grand jury proceedings that occurred in their wake quickly became politicized, the deaths of these two officers shot in cold blood will be exploited by people with their own political and power agendas. It is, sadly, the way things work in this country.

Before that starts, though, I hope that someone stops to remember the families of these two men, as well as the tens of thousands of members of the NYPD and other officers around the country who will be impacted by this horrible tragedy. They didn’t deserve to die, and they don’t deserve to be turned into political symbols either.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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