Was the Police Response During the Empire State Building Shooting Justified?

Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen

On August 24, 2012, disgruntled former apparel designer Jeffrey Johnson walked into Hazan Imports and began firing a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun at his former supervisor, Steven Ercolino, killing him. Within seven minutes of the shooting, two NYPD officers confronted Johnson in a pedestrian-heavy area. Johnson pointed his firearm at the officers and without hesitation the officers opened fire, discharging sixteen shots in response. Because of their quick action, Johnson never had the chance to fire a single bullet from his weapon, but nine innocent bystanders were injured as a result of police fire. One bullet tore through the leg of Erica Solar who was getting a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts. She is currently still hospitalized at Bellevue Hospital. Others were injured as a result of ricochets, and flying debris. At least two injured have announced that they will likely sue the NYPD and the City of New York for their injuries by filing a notice of claim with the New York City Comptroller.

Was the Police Response Too Much?

In an effort to keep up with the firepower of criminals, the NYPD upgraded from the standard .38 caliber 6-shot revolver in the mid-1990s. The .38 was the long time weapon for the NYPD, but had many drawbacks. The revolver was limited to six shots before having to be reloaded, and the reloading was slow and cumbersome. The decision was made in the mid-1990s to upgrade to a faster-firing, higher capacity semi-automatic pistol. The new semi-automatic pistols have capacity for 15 shot magazines in the firearm, are easily reloaded, fire far more rapidly than the .38, and an officer can conveniently carry two or three 15-round magazines. This change in weaponry gives each NYPD officer 30 to 45 bullets at his/her disposal, up significantly from the capacity of a .38 revolver. As with anything in life, speed kills. The rate of fire of the new police weapon is so fast that control and accuracy are sacrificed. Combine the loss of control and accuracy with the strained nerves of an officer involved in an already high-pressure situation, and the results are potentially deadly.

Knowing the Outcome of August 24, Should the Police Act Again in the Same Manner?

Yes. The police are charged with protecting citizens. In most cases, officers have fractions of a second to make life-altering decisions—and typically get it right. But there is always an error factor. Errors are human nature and cannot be completely eradicated no matter how much training is provided. Officers will miss shots and sometimes innocent people will be injured, but the police should still continue to try and protect. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was quoted as saying, “When you’re told that someone just killed someone around the corner, and five seconds later that person identified as the shooter points the gun at you… it was the appropriate action to take.”

So far, based upon all the reports and investigations, the shooting and the number of bullets fired appears to be “a reasonable and acceptable use of force” according to John Shane, a former Newark, N.J. police captain now teaching Criminal Justice at John Jay College in New York.

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