Why nobody do no CPR?” — the question pierces a cell-phone video documenting New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner to death. Garner lies handcuffed, facedown, on a Staten Island sidewalk as nearly a dozen officers, and eventually emergency medical services employees, stand around him. No one provides assistance. Nearly two years later, after another death at the hands of the NYPD, the trial of a different officer has provided some clarity.
Peter Liang, the rookie NYPD officer who shot 28-year-old Akai Gurley in a darkened East New York stairwell in November 2014, testified to a Brooklyn jury on February 10 that he had never really been trained in CPR at the Police Academy, despite receiving a certification for the skill. “There were two to three hundred people in the class. During our test they gave us the answers,” he said. Liang’s partner, Shaun Landau, also testified to this effect, acknowledging that his CPR training lasted about two minutes, that he was fed the answers and that every cadet received the certification.
After being shot, Gurley bled to death in the stairwell. Neither Liang nor Landau provided aid, arguing instead about who would call their supervisors. At some point, they stepped over Gurley’s dying body in an effort to locate bullet fragments from the discharge. It was Gurley’s companion, Pink Houses resident Melissa Butler, who called an ambulance and tried to keep him alive. Liang said in court that he would have helped, but didn’t know how.
Both he and Landau have since been fired from the NYPD. Liang was convicted of manslaughter and misconduct and eventually sentenced by Judge Danny Chun to community service and probation, to the dismay of Gurley’s family and their supporters who had sought jail time. Gurley was killed four days before a Ferguson, Mo., jury failed to bring charges against police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in August 2014.
Liang’s courtroom admission was heartbreaking for Michael and Carmen Ojeda of Brooklyn.
On Aug. 27, 2010, Carmen Ojeda was rushing their 11-year-old daughter Briana, who was suffering from an asthma attack, to the Long Island College Hospital in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Having mistakenly turned her car down a one-way street against traffic, she was stopped by a police officer, Alfonso Mendez. She begged him for help, but he insisted, “I don’t do CPR, I don’t know how,” according to court documents. Instead, Mendez began issuing Carmen Ojeda a traffic ticket and held her for 15 minutes while her daughter gasped for air in the back seat. By the time they reached the hospital, just three blocks away from where Mendez stopped them, Briana was dead.
“My daughter won’t have a sweet 16 party, she won’t graduate from college. She told the officer, ‘I can’t breathe,’ just like Eric Garner. They both needed CPR,” Michael Ojeda told me. “Every day I wake up and look for her in her room, hoping it’s a nightmare and that I’ll wake up and it’s not real.”
“It’s a hole in your heart that just won’t ever go away,” Carmen Ojeda said.
Mendez went on the run after the incident, shaving his head to change his appearance and omitting the interaction on incident reports from the day. Detectives finally located him after they canvassed witnesses with photos of officers from neighboring precincts. He eventually faced departmental charges and was suspended, but was never criminally charged. Two years later he was working on modified duty in Bronx public housing.
The fact that Liang was convicted criminally of misconduct, at least in part for not rendering aid, but Mendez was not, doesn’t sit well with Carmen Ojeda.
“I feel our case was just brushed aside,” she said. “I believe that there was injustice done. I believe [Mendez] should go through his trial, but he should be indicted for his negligence. He should not be a police officer. My daughter died. She’s not coming back. And now he’s in another precinct? Does that make sense?”
OPENING THE DOOR TO CHANGE
For the last six years the Ojedas have been shuttling back and forth between their Brooklyn home and Albany, N.Y., lobbying to get legislation passed that would require officers to be retrained in CPR every two years. They’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on the effort, in advertising and organizing bus trips with advocates to the capital. Every year the bill passes through the State Assembly, but hasn’t gained traction in the generally more conservative State Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
“The [Liang] thing has opened the door a little bit,” Michael Ojeda said. The bill has also secured the support of Republican Sen. Jack M. Martins of Long Island, which Michael Ojeda and other elected officials pointed to as a hopeful sign.
“We are encouraged to have a majority member in the Senate as a sponsor,” said Kristin Williams, the legislative director for Assembly Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz, who has championed the bill.
“Hopefully we’ll get the law so that no other families have to go through this, and no officers have to go through this,” Mr. Ojeda said. He said that police officers have also been supportive of the cause.
“Nobody wants to go home and tell their kids that they let a child die because they didn’t know how to do CPR,” he said.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, forced to respond to the allegations against the department’s training lodged by Liang and Landau, has said he is thoroughly investigating the academy’s CPR course. “Under no circumstances will we tolerate any instructor in the New York City Police Department short-circuiting the process for this instruction,” Bratton said. He has since re-assigned a police academy instructor.
State Assemblyman Ortiz has said that Bratton should have been on the issue long ago. “I’ve asked Commissioner Bill Bratton to mandate CPR retraining several times in the past and never heard back that it was a priority,” he said. “I expect the Commissioner and his department finally realize that CPR saves lives and that there is absolutely no excuse not to properly train officers.”
Michael Ojeda agrees that the scrutiny is long overdue. “For someone training police officers to just have the audacity to tell 200 cadets, don’t worry about this part, we got you, he’s got to be very comfortable with that. It’s not the first time he’s done this,” Michael Ojeda said of the CPR instructor’s decision to give the exam answers to Liang and his classmates. “We’ve got to look back and see how long this has been going on,” he said.
POLICE BRASS ‘TALKING OUT OF THEIR ASS’
But not everyone is on board with the bill. Former NYPD officer Eugene O’Donnell, for example, sees the legislation as misguided. “So they are going to be threatened and sanctioned into becoming caregivers, because someone in Albany decided that’s best?” he asked. “I guess you can keep trying to slam the round peg into the square hole, but it’s not going to happen on the ground.”
Peter Zimroth, a federal monitor overseeing changes to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, has pointed to a similar disconnect at the police department. In a report published in February, he wrote that although the department has issued new guidelines for stops and initiated new trainings, many rank-and-file officers remain unaware that any changes were made. Other officers are intentionally ignoring the new rules out of fear of legal liabilities, he wrote.
Recently, a Black NYPD officer interviewed by the New York Times also described conflicts between the public statements of police brass on quotas — that they do not exist — and the reality of her day-to-day work, in which she is forced to meet them. “It’s like they’re talking out of their ass and their mouth at the same time,” she said.
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN
Michael Ojeda sees Akai Gurley’s death as a result of the NYPD not taking the issue of CPR seriously, and history predictably repeating itself. It’s a feeling that other people who have lost family members to police violence share.
Nicholas Heyward Jr. grew up around the corner from the Ojedas’ house. Michael Ojeda, whose father ran a deli in the neighborhood, said he remembers working with his dad and seeing little Nicholas coming in all the time for sandwiches. On September 27, 1994, Nicholas was playing cops and robbers in his building when he was shot in the stomach by police officer Brian George, who, like Liang, was conducting a vertical patrol with his gun out, finger on the trigger. George was never prosecuted, and Nicholas’s father, Nicholas Heyward Sr., has organized yearly vigils and basketball tournaments to keep his son’s memory alive. Gurley’s death in such similar circumstances, and that of Timothy Stansbury in 2004, have renewed his efforts to hold George criminally responsible.
“I feel in my heart, that if Brian George had been convicted, if he had been held accountable at all, that Akai Gurley would still be alive today,” he said at a recent event outside Kings County Criminal Court in Brooklyn.
Carmen Ojeda agrees that by letting Mendez off the hook, other families, such as Gurley’s, have been made to suffer. None of the officers involved in Eric Garner’s death have been arrested or charged criminally; meanwhile, Ramsey Orta and Taisha Allen, whose cell-phone videos of his death went viral, have both been arrested since. Their respective attorneys have categorized the arrests as retaliation for the videos.
Both Nicholas Heyward Sr. and the Ojedas have petitioned Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson to reopen criminal investigations against officers George and Mendez. Late last year, Thompson agreed to reinvestigate the Heyward case.