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Four years ago, New York Police Officer Richard Haste shot and killed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in Graham's own home, while the teen's grandmother and 6-year-old brother were in the apartment. On Tuesday, the fourth anniversary of the shooting, Graham's parents and several dozen community activists camped out overnight in front of the Department of Justice building in Lower Manhattan calling for federal prosecutors to convene a grand jury in the case.
"Four years is too long to be waiting for justice," said Constance Malcolm, Graham's mother, at a press conference in front of New York City Hall. "Four years is too long to get an answer for why my son is not here today."
In the February 2, 2012 incident, police officers followed Graham home after claiming they saw him adjusting his waistband, suggesting he was carrying a gun. Surveillance footage showed the cops attempting to kick down the front door to Graham's apartment building before another tenant let them in. They proceeded upstairs and burst into Graham's apartment without a warrant.
Graham ran into a bathroom, where police suspect he was trying to flush a small bag of marijuana that was found at the scene. Haste claims he identified himself as a cop and told Graham to raise his hands before shooting him in the chest at close range. The officer said he thought he saw a gun, but Graham was unarmed and no weapon was found in the apartment.
The NYPD originally claimed there was probable cause for entering Graham's apartment building and home because he fled from the officers that were pursuing him, but the surveillance footage showed Graham calmly entering his building, seemingly unaware that he was being followed. After the shooting, Graham's grandmother, Patricia Hartley, was interrogated for seven hours without an attorney present.
Haste was indicted for manslaughter four months after the shooting, but the charge was dismissed on a technicality. The Bronx District Attorney's Office refiled the case, but the second grand jury declined to indict Haste. The city later settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the Graham family for $3.9 million.
In addition to demanding a federal grand jury, Graham's family is also calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to immediately fire Haste, who was put on desk duty after the shooting but has continued to receive regular pay raises.
New York City Councilman Andy King, who represents the district Graham was from, was a community activist at the time Graham was killed. He said that despite his best efforts to abide by the legal process to address police misconduct, he and others in the Bronx feel the system has failed in this case.
"I had to do a lot of work to diffuse the energy and the anger in the community because young people were angry and frustrated at what happened," King said. "We've respected the process for four years. I'm downright angry that Richard Haste and all the officers on the scene who broke the law need to be held to account."
A year after declining to indict Haste, another grand jury opted not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. Experts have noted that prosecutors are typically able to secure grand jury indictments in most cases — except when police officers are involved. Last year, California became the first state to ban grand juries in cases of deadly force by police, leaving the decision to indict officers solely up to prosecutors.
In a similar acknowledgement of problems with the grand jury system, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order last year that empowers the state attorney general to act as special prosecutor in cases of officer-involved deaths. Graham's mother was one of the main advocates for that reform, but the executive order is not retroactive and will not apply to her son's case.
In cases where a local grand jury declines to indict an officer, a federal indictment for violations of civil rights, such as the one Graham's parents are calling for, may be the only recourse for victims.
'New York City should lead the way here. The rest of the country looks to us.'
"The death of Ramarley Graham was a tragedy," Monica Klein, the mayor's spokeswoman for criminal justice issues, told VICE News. "Under Mayor de Blasio, the NYPD has piloted body cameras, retrained its officers, and established new Use of Force guidelines — all part of the mayor's pledge to strengthen the relationship between police and the communities they serve."
But Graham's family, concerned community members, and local politicians all say that the city still needs to set an example where an officer is held accountable for misconduct.
"While we understand that trainings and body cameras are important, they're not the entire solution," said Anthonine Pierre, lead community organizer for Brooklyn Movement Center, one of the groups that helped organize the overnight protest. "Those tactics are great at decreasing the problem, but they're not great at eradicating the problem."
New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams echoed that sentiment.
"We haven't seen accountability and discipline for officers," he said. "I think that's the number one thing we have to see. That's the number one thing that will change police behavior."
After the second grand jury declined to indict Haste, the Department of Justice said it would launch an investigation. But nearly three years later, there is a growing sense that federal prosecutors are acting too slowly and the case is not a priority. A spokesman for the US Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York declined to comment on the case.
The family of Ramarley Graham at the protest on Tuesday. (Photo by Jay Cassano)
Meanwhile, the city has faced criticism for not firing or otherwise disciplining Haste. The city's position is that it has to wait on the outcome of DOJ investigation. The mayor's office confirmed to VICE News that federal prosecutors asked the NYPD to suspend its internal investigation of the case until the DOJ inquiry is complete.
But the mayor's office would not specify precisely when that request was made, or if the NYPD has a timeline to resume its investigation. The NYPD did not return requests for comment.
In the meantime, the Graham family is calling for Haste to be fired immediately. They point to a precedent from nearly two decades ago, in which an NYPD officer was fired in 1997 for choking Bronx resident Anthony Baez. The officer did not face criminal charges, but was stripped of his badge while a federal investigation into civil rights violations was still pending.
"Mayor de Blasio may not have been in City Hall when Ramarley was killed," Graham's parents said in a joint statement, "but if he's truly committed to real reform that holds police officers accountable for violating their fundamental oath to 'serve and protect,' then he needs to remove these officers from the NYPD."
Since Graham was killed, a number of other high-profile police killings in New York and around the country have gone unprosecuted, including those of Garner, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Advocates for Graham's case hope that the increased media attention on the nationwide problem of police killings of unarmed black men and women will translate into action.
"There is a string of no accountability for police officers across the country," said Williams, the New York City Council member. "I think New York City should lead the way here. The rest of the country looks to us."
Nearly 200 protesters turned out for the rally Tuesday night, but the number shrank to around 50 by midnight as temperatures dipped toward freezing. The NYPD remained hands off throughout the evening, keeping a handful of officers stationed nearby. The demonstration was equal parts anti-police-violence rally and solemn vigil, with chants like "Killer coppers gotta go," interspersed with heartfelt statements from Graham's family.
"We're not going to give up," said Malcolm, Graham's mother. "I always taught my kids to fight for what they believe in. I'm going to fight until we get these officers prosecuted for the crime they committed."
Follow Jay Cassano on Twitter: @jcassano
Topics: ramarley graham, black lives matter, nypd, unarmed teen shot, michael brown, ferguson, tamir rice, eric garner, bronx, new york, bill de blasio, bill bratton, department of justice, southern district of new york, civil rights, grand jury, richard haste, americas, officer involved, crime & drugs