Brooklyn Shooting Example of a National Trend

By Guest Columnist Nov 13, 2007

On the same day that ColorLines and The Chicago Reporter published a special joint investigation into fatal police shootings across the country, the New York Police Department shot to death an unarmed 18-year-old Black man in a public housing development in Bedford-Stuveysant, Brooklyn. The mother of the deceased, Khiel Coppin, had called 911 and reported a domestic disturbance, and police reported that on the call they overheard a man saying he had a gun. When the NYPD arrived, Coppin climbed out of a first-floor window and was shot at twenty times by five officers. Thirteen bullets found their target, and after Coppin fell to the ground the police handcuffed him. The only object found on Coppin was a hairbrush, and he was pronounced dead at a local hospital. An angry crowd immediately protested the shooting outside the development. The New York Times reported that one woman shouted a message to the police: “You need training—this is absurd!” Another outraged man told the cops: “I’m not trying to start a riot. I’m just saying it’s not right.” The community’s nearly instantaneous transformation from shock to anger can be best explained not just by the shooting of Coppin—details of which are still emerging—but also by the death of another unarmed Black man, Timothy Stansbury, in 2004. The 19-year-old Stansbury was climbing the stairs of the Louis Armstrong Development, three blocks from Coppin’s apartment, when he met Officer Richard S. Neri Jr. Officer Neri was conducting a routine patrol of the complex with his gun drawn, loaded, and his finger on the trigger (despite the fact that he wasn’t responding to a specific threat). When he met Stansbury he fired a fatal bullet through his chest. Neri was later acquitted by a grand jury, stating that he had been “startled.” Eyewitness accounts raise serious questions about the behavior of the police yesterday. As the Times reports: “Two bystanders who said they had seen the shooting said that Mr. Coppin was not armed, but was carrying a hairbrush when he climbed out the window and that he dropped it when the firing began. The two witnesses also said they both heard one officer yelling for the shooting to stop.” That doesn’t sound good for the police, though the NYPD is clearly trying to control the narrative by offering a different story. As the Times continues: “According to the police, another witness described Mr. Coppin as concealing the hairbrush under his shirt, pointing it outward.” This is nothing new, of course: when weapons don’t appear, the police must offer a theory to explain the death of another unarmed victim. Investigations are ongoing, so it is still too early to say what the results will be. But when an officer can kill an unarmed man like Stansbury and remain on the police force by citing a “startled” defense, one can only surmise that if the shooting was improper, the Coppin family will have a long road ahead in trying to hold the NYPD accountable. Gabriel Thompson is a Brooklyn-based writer currently working on a book about Mexican immigrants.