The Assassination of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu
On Saturday, December 20, 2014, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley woke up in Baltimore and thought about killing himself. He'd been arrested twenty times, his friends had robbed and pistol-whipped him, and his girlfriend had dumped him. He still had her key, so at approximately 5:30 that morning he went to her house and put a silver Taurus 9mm pistol to his head. After she talked him out of it, he shot her in the gut and ran.
Now what? Brinsley could imagine the word on the street: he was a loser who couldn't even do suicide right and didn't have the balls to kill his girlfriend; he'd only wounded her. He decided to go back to Brooklyn, where he was raised.
Counting my time as a military police officer in Vietnam, I've been in the law enforcement business for nearly fifty years, and this kind of story is less unusual than you'd imagine. In fact, it is kind of typical. Police see a lot of men and women who have put themselves in difficult positions try to change the narrative of their life stories to transform themselves into heroes. That morning, Ismaaiyl Brinsley was a bum who was going to be sought by the law for brutalizing an innocent woman. He was going to jail. So he decided he was going to kill some cops.
That July, Eric Garner had died while struggling with New York Police Department officers, and that August, Michael Brown had been killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That November and December, grand juries had handed down "no true bills," declining to indict the officers involved in either death. In the midst of all this, the Black Lives Matter movement rose to the fore. It had first appeared as a hashtag in the social media world associated with the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and then in the physical world in 2014 with a convergence of activists in Ferguson. Now the movement was being felt nationwide, driven in part by a roiling resentment of the police in the African American and other communities throughout the country.
Throughout New York City, every day there were daunting demonstrations--large, small, medium size--at which people were yelling at the police. Demonstrators were screaming right up in cops' faces: All police are brutal, you are murderers, you are racists! I know from a lifetime of police work that this is not true, but the perception had taken hold.
The anger was real, though, even if the claims were not. For some demonstrators, the shouts were meant to provoke officers to prove the protesters' points. Our men and women exhibited enormous restraint, first, in taking the face-to-face verbal, personal abuse, and second, in working hard to facilitate people's protests, by following them through the streets, blocking traffic so they could maintain their groups, setting aside appropriate sites, and making sure that demonstrators were safe while demonstrating. This is, after all, America, where the right to protest is protected by our Constitution.
All assumptions to the contrary, the police work hard to make sure free-speech demonstrations happen, and happen successfully. In cities large and small, officers maintain the peace for every kind of protest imaginable. These were different: the police were the focus, not just the peacekeepers, and they were being baited at every turn. (Not until the summer of 2020 would officers see anything like this again.) The internet traffic was all about "killer cops," "cops need to pay," "cops should be killed." The rules against advocating violence had apparently gone out the window. Our Threat Assessment and Protection Unit--TAPU--was getting buried in internet incitements to harm, assault, or kill police. They were almost overwhelmed by running these threats down. Furthermore, unlike a one-day march for nuclear nonproliferation, say, these protests were nonstop and snowballed through the fall and early winter.
With this as the backdrop, Brinsley decided to make himself into an avenger. He had stolen his ex-girlfriend's cell phone. He logged into his Instagram account. Alongside a photo of that same silver Taurus 9mm handgun he posted the message: "I'm Putting Wings On Pigs Today. They Take 1 Of Ours . . . Let's Take 2 Of Theirs #ShootThePolice #RIPErivGarner [sic] #RIPMikeBrown."
While on the bus, Brinsley called his girlfriend's mother. She recognized the number, and thinking it was her child, picked up. Brinsley apologized for shooting her daughter. She called the Baltimore County Police. "He is on Instagram, he called me and said something, I don't remember, like 'I'm sorry' or 'I didn't mean to do it' or whatever it was."
The Baltimore County Police pinged the phone. They saw it was moving slowly northward in the direction of New York. Was Brinsley on a bus? In a car? On a train? They couldn't be sure, only that he was moving. Investigators found he had a prior address in Brooklyn; maybe he was heading there. They telephoned what they thought was the Brooklyn precinct in which that address was located. "What? Where?" said the sergeant who answered. "Not us." He referred them to the right one.
"You have an alert for this guy for attempted homicide and you think he might be headed here?" said the sergeant who answered the phone at the 70th Precinct, or the 7-0, as cops call it. "Fax us what you've got."
Brinsley arrived in Brooklyn and tossed the phone in the garbage near the Barclays Center. He told some people he ran into in the street to follow him on Instagram. He said, "Watch what I'm going to do."
Baltimore had made a wanted flyer. It read, "Please use extreme caution. Threats on police." The scan arrived at the 7-0 at 2:46 p.m. At 2:47 Brinsley stood in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the passenger-side window of an NYPD cruiser. Inside were Police Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.
Rafael Ramos had entered the Police Academy at age thirty-seven, more than a decade older than the average starting cop. He was married, with two sons, and both at work and home Ramos was the picture of a person who cared deeply about the young. He joined the NYPD as a school safety agent and worked his way up to officer. He had been on the force only three years. Ramos was studying to be a chaplain; he was eleven days past his fortieth birthday.
Wenjian Liu left his native China when he was twelve years old. He called himself Joe and had been on the path to becoming an accountant when 9/11 changed his thinking. He first joined the NYPD as an auxiliary officer--an unpaid volunteer with no gun, just a uniform and a star-shaped shield. When two of his auxiliary brothers were murdered by a madman in Greenwich Village, he could have turned away. He could have said it wasn't worth it. Instead, four months later, he took the oath to become a New York City police officer.
Liu often cooked for his immigrant parents--he made a great vegetable soup. He was an avid fisherman. He had just gotten married that October. Liu was thirty-two years old and had been on the job seven years.
At almost the same moment the Baltimore wanted flyer came out of the 7-0 precinct's printer, Brinsley fired four shots through the cruiser's window, shattering the glass and hitting both Ramos and Liu in the head. The guy who was trying to recast himself as some kind of racial avenger had picked two officers who were part of the growing number of minority officers in the NYPD.
Two Con Ed workers who were stopped at a red light witnessed the shooting. They called 911 and followed Brinsley and tried to confront him, but he turned the weapon on them. "You want some of this?" They backed off, but after they saw him go down into the Myrtle-Willoughby Avenues G train subway station, they flagged down a patrol car and told the cops where to find him. In hot pursuit, the officers cornered Brinsley on the platform. He shot himself in the head and died. Ramos and Liu were rushed to the closest hospital, Woodhull, and into the emergency room.
My wife, Rikki Klieman, and I had gone home for the holidays to Boston, where I was born. Normally I would have had my security detail run me up there and back. But because it was Christmas and the wife of Detective Rahkim Fareaux, a member of my detail, was close to giving birth, I had opted to drive a department car myself; at least if something were to happen in the middle of the night and planes and trains weren't running, I would have the means to get back.
We were in our hotel when my BlackBerry went off. It was Mayor Bill de Blasio. "We have two cops shot in Brooklyn." I immediately called the head of my detail, Inspector Tim Trainor, who had also been trying to reach me. It was now their job to help get me back.
I rode the red light and siren from Boston and was surprised that people were yielding on the expressway. (Boston is worse than New York about people not getting out of the way of emergency vehicles.) I was working the phones, trying to get the details on the condition of the officers and find the quickest way to get to New York. At the Rhode Island state line I was greeted with a police escort to Green Airport in Warwick, where an NYPD helicopter was waiting.
The emotion and anxiety were high--one of the most terrible parts of the NYPD commissioner's job is dealing with the death of officers under one's command. But at the same time, I was trying to project a degree of calm, even over the phone, that would reassure the people of the department that they were in good hands and that we would move forward with clear purpose.
When cops get shot, as police commissioner you always have the same reaction: you're deeply concerned for their safety--How badly are they injured? Is it debilitating? Life threatening?--because often you don't know. But you have to put your emotions aside while your experience and training kick in and your brain starts to focus on a list of questions to be answered: What happened? Why did it happen? Who did it? What are we doing about it?
At that initial stage I wasn't directing anything; a set of well-designed protocols had been put into action.
We landed the chopper in Brooklyn on a ball field at Bushwick High School, and it didn't take long for my security detail to drive me to the hospital. My first priority was to offer comfort to the families and to assess the impact on other officers. There is nothing that affects cops like a line-of-duty death. The anguish felt by the families of Officers Ramos and Liu and the collective family of the NYPD was palpable.
Lieutenant Special Assignment Eugene Whyte, in the Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, had been off duty, but he was heading down the FDR Drive to get some work in at NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza in lower Manhattan. His unmarked police car's radio, tuned to the municipal frequency Citywide 1, came alive with a woman's voice. She was shrieking.
The address was in Brooklyn. Whyte didn't have a native's intelligence of the borough--he was not, as he says, "good with Brooklyn"--but he happened to be at the Brooklyn Bridge on-ramp and flew over. A marked radio car passed, going lights and sirens, so Gene fell in behind it; the officers couldn't be going anywhere else. Gene thought there must have been a highway cop at the wheel--driving like a professional maniac, clearing parked cars by only inches on each side as they shot down one-way streets. Gene barely breathed, as if sucking in his gut would pull in his car doors.
Over the radio the sergeant on the scene was calling desperately for an ambulance--"Get a bus, get a bus!!!"
When Whyte arrived, Ramos was on the ground, his blood-soaked vest removed, cops pumping his chest. The sergeant stood up and Whyte ran over. "Are you okay?" The sergeant was covered in blood and Whyte thought maybe he had been shot.
"Sir, sir, I had just given them a scratch!" In the old days, in order to verify that a police officer was where he said he was, a supervisor would cruise by the patrol post and initial the cop's memo book. No one could take the time to write out his full name, and the affirmation quickly evolved into a series of check marks or quick notations. No need for penmanship. The sergeant would give his patrolmen a "scratch." Assigned to stay at their post for an hour or so, Ramos and Liu had just gotten their sarge's scratch when Brinsley had come around and shot them through the passenger-side window.
"I just walked away, and I heard the shots and I ran right back!" The sergeant was overwrought.
Whyte looked at him. "Get this guy to the hospital."
The sergeant was having none of it. "I'm good, I've gotta stay here."
Whyte stood curbside next to the hydrant at which Ramos and Liu had parked. Officer Liu was collapsed on his left side, under a blanket of shattered glass. Blood was pooled in thick clots on the seat and the floor. A McDonald's cheeseburger wrapper lay crumpled in the seat behind him.
Whyte realized the need to organize. It was not his role as a press officer to attend to procedural matters, but he said to the sergeant, "We've got to get people up on the roofs here."
"They got the guy," the sergeant said. "He's down in the train station. He's dead."
"Okay, that's good. But there's a lot of people coming here, and there's a lot of cops. I am afraid we're going to get airmail." Stuff flying down from the roofs. "This is a crime scene, we have got to get posts in there. Who is the highest-ranking guy?"
"The duty chief is on his way."
Word was out, and cops were motoring to the scene. Three-star chief Tom Purtell arrived quickly. He had run the department's rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. Purtell grabbed Whyte for a briefing.
"What's going on?"
"That sergeant," said Whyte, "we got to get him out of here."
"We have to start taking control of this area, because it is a really bad scene; the cops are really upset, we need to start freezing it down, locking it, and making sure nobody else gets hurt."
Chief Purtell said, “We got to be careful. There might be other guysout here.”
At this point, officers on scene knew next to nothing about the perpetrator, his background, or his motives. Was this act of irrationalindividual mayhem, or something else? Were accomplices? We didn’tknow what was going on.
As the leader of the uniformed forces, Chief Purtell took control of the area. He grabbed all the bosses, brought them into a nearby church auditorium, and began laying out what they had to do.
The ambush of two would be a major press event. Lieutenant Whyte needed people at the hospital.
Greg Longworth, who had been my security detail number one when I was commissioner in 1994 and was now a lawyer for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association—the police union—had spent the morning in New Jersey buying gifts for the holidays and had been about to drive back into the city through the Lincoln Tunnel. Greg could tell from the sound of the transmissions and his contacts at the hospital that this was going to be an ugly scene, and he didn’t want to trivialize the situation by showing upwith a Christmas tree strapped to his roof, so he pulled over and left the evergreen on the side of the road, hoping it would still be there whenever he got back to collect it.
He arrived at Woodhull Hospital to find a chaotic scene. In a big surgical operating room in the emergency room, the doctors and nurses worked frantically to prevent the worst from happening. It was pandemonium. In his years on the job, Greg thought to himself, he had never seen two cops being operated on in the same room at the same time.
The medical staff at Woodhull were magnificent. They did as good a job as any other top- performing New York City trauma center. Teams of more than six doctors and nurses each worked on both men for over an hour.
They couldn’t keep enough plasma in Liu; they couldn’t suture the head wound. Every time doctors put a bag of blood in his arm and pumped his heart hard in compression, his fluid shot out and hit the ceiling. They did everything they could, but they called him first. He was gone.
A young Black nurse wearing a New York Giants sweatshirt gave Ramos CPR for over an hour. She straddled him and kept pushing on his chest so hard that Longworth thought she was going to have a heart attack herself. She was covered in blood, but if she stopped, Ramos was gone; so when she asked, Greg and some others helped remove her saturated sweatshirt. It fell to the linoleum floor with a thud. Soaking wet, wearing only her bra and scrub pants, she continued applying chest compressions. But it was no good: both men had essentially been dead on arrival. (Greg and others representing the PBA returned to Woodhull weeks later and thanked the nurse for her extraordinary efforts.)