When Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced Wednesday that he would recommend a sentence of no jail time for Peter Liang, the former New York Police Department officer convicted of killing Akai Gurley, reaction across New York City ranged from disappointment and anger to relief that the 28-year-old might be spared up to 15 years in prison.
Thompson's recommendation of five years probation, six months of home confinement, and 500 hours of community service, which is not binding but could carry weight at sentencing, has rekindled debate within New York's African-American and Asian-American communities about how justice can best be achieved in a case where questions of race have been raised multiple times.
"In light of the fact that there was a loss of life, to ask for no jail time, some of my residents are a bit perplexed to say the least," New York state Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley, a Democrat whose Brooklyn district is roughly 50 percent African American, told NBC News.
On Monday, Mosley and state Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat, are scheduled to take part in a panel organized by the Asian American Business Development Center and One Hundred Black Men, Inc. to discuss race relations between African Americans and Asian Americans and how the two communities can collaborate in the wake of the Liang case.
Mosley, who grew up in the district he now represents, said his constituents felt that justice was served when Liang's conviction was handed down in February. But he added that they were also concerned with other cases like the 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, in which NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was accused of applying a fatal chokehold during an encounter. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict.
Garner was black; Pantaleo is white. The only NYPD officer brought up on departmental charges was Sgt. Kizzy Adonis, a 14-year veteran of the force who is black.
"Obviously, there's concern about the level of justice that we're not seeing in other cases, for whatever reason, and that no group or groups in our city should feel that justice is being applied unevenly," Mosley said. "That was some of the concerns constituents had in my district, in view of some of the outstanding cases where we're talking about the interactions of ordinary citizens with members of the NYPD."
Kim, who in February spoke at a Brooklyn rally attended by thousands protesting Liang's conviction, told NBC News that Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, had a tough decision to make, but added that his recommendation not to send Liang to jail was ultimately the right one.
"I think any person who can empathize with the situation understands that this was not an intentional killing by Officer Liang," said Kim, adding that he believes Liang must still be held accountable. "However, there is someone who was shot, and there's a family that's mourning, and they deserve to get justice out of this as well."
In a statement last week, Gurley's family members — who protested outside Thompson's office on Thursday, the same day Liang apologized to Gurley's domestic partner Kimberly Ballinger — said they were outraged at his recommendation and called it inadequate.
"This sentencing recommendation sends the message that police officers who kill people should not face serious consequences," the statement reads. "It is this on-going pattern of a severe lack of accountability for officers that unjustly kill and brutalize New Yorkers that allows the violence to continue."
Kim said he believes there's a lack of consistency in the way cases are pursued against police officers involved in incidents with civilians.
A grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown in 2014 following an encounter, and the U.S. Justice Department cleared Wilson of civil rights violations last year. Six Baltimore police officers will be tried later this year in connection with Freddie Gray's death. Gray died a week after suffering a broken neck in the back of a police van. In December, a judge declared a mistrial in the trial of one of the officers.
Some Asian Americans have long maintained that Liang was made a scapegoat to compensate for officers not indicted in connection with the deaths of Garner and Brown, among others. For his part, Thompson, the son of an NYPD officer and who is Brooklyn's first African-American district attorney, has said politics and other cases did not figure into his decision to prosecute Liang.
In July, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order appointing the New York state attorney general as a special prosecutor in deaths of unarmed civilians by law enforcement, a move applauded by Kim.
"There's a selective enforcement of the justice system depending on where you live, what your background is, and what the case looks like," Kim said. "That's an injustice to all communities, and that's something that both the Asians and the blacks must come together to address."
"Instead of having a nation under one set of laws, the appearance is that we have a nation that has a separate rule of law depending on the circumstances and the individuals who are involved," Mosley added. "And that's where the frustration comes in, on all parties and all communities."
Kim, whose Queens district is more than 60 percent Asian, said that while some in the Asian-American community feel Thompson's sentencing recommendation was fair, others believe Liang should have never been prosecuted in the first place, and they worry his manslaughter conviction will follow him for the rest of his life.
"They weren't trying to argue that he should get a pass because other white cops in the past got a pass," said Kim, adding that the New York City Housing Authority, which administers the Louis H. Pink Houses, and the NYPD, which earlier this month placed an academy instructor on modified duty amid allegations of inadequate CPR training, should also be held accountable in Gurley's death.
"I think people are saying they should apply the same standards to every single person, and not apply a higher set of standards just because a cop of Asian descent is easier to pick on," he continued.
Asked about what Liang's case teaches us about race and the criminal justice system, Mosley said "the dynamics are far-reaching," touching on the Hispanic, Asian and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, as well as young people and the policing of immigrants.
"I think it would be oversimplified if we just talk about this in black and white," Mosley said. "But I believe that we cannot be prejudgmental, that we cannot rush to judgement. These are just recommendations, and Judge Chun will take everything into account, including I think the most important thing that Mr. Liang was found guilty by a jury of his peers, and that hopefully that will be one of the determinative, if not at least most significant, factors when sentencing comes around."