NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of nine bystanders shot when two New York police officers fatally shot a homicidal suspect outside the Empire State Building last summer has filed a lawsuit charging that the officers - who fired 16 bullets, killing the suspect - were not adequately trained.
The tense August 24 showdown, at the height of morning rush hour on one of Manhattan’s busiest streets, was captured on video and shows suspect Jeffrey Johnson stepping from behind a concrete flower pot and pointing his gun at two approaching officers, who swiftly returned fire.
A few minutes earlier, Johnson had shot a former co-worker at close range, killing him. The confrontation with police lasted less than 10 seconds.
“The NYPD is aware of the deficiencies in its training program,” said Stephen B. Epstein, one of the attorneys representing shooting victim Chenin Duclos, 32, a physical therapy student who was struck in the leg, shattering her femur.
“The reason they haven’t made adjustments to the training is that it would cost a substantial amount of money, and they have a budget,” Epstein said. “The reality is, they’re better off paying off judgments than changing training.”
An NYPD spokesman vigorously defended the department’s firearms training program.
“Actually, it’s the best-trained police department in the country,” chief NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said on Wednesday, adding that “you won’t find anything close to the level of annual training the NYPD goes through” on any other U.S. police force.
Browne said the department’s 35,000 officers receive firing range training twice a year, and complete an annual course in urban military warfare and counter-terrorism at a Bronx police training facility where real-time urban crime scenarios are rehearsed.
“Any reasonable person that sees that video sees that the officers had no choice but to fire,” Browne said.
The lawsuit contends that the two officers “ran up upon Johnson, pointed at him, called out to him, approached him, and attempted to grab him, causing him to draw his weapon, instead of following at a safe distance, calling for back-up officers, and waiting to confront Johnson at a location away from a crowded street.”
Most of the wounded were hit by shrapnel after police bullets struck concrete flower pots placed in front of the city landmark to protect it from car bombers, and splintered, police officials said. Epstein said it remained unclear if Duclos was hit by shrapnel or a bullet.
The NYPD’s 2011 Firearms Discharge Report said that last year, 35,000 NYPD officers had 23 million encounters with civilians, and discharged a weapon in 92 incidents. Nineteen of the incidents caused injuries and nine caused a death, according to the report.
A 2008 Rand Corporation study of the NYPD’s firearms training program recommended expanding the use of Tasers, sensitizing officers’ ears to the sound of gunfire during firearms training, and more frequent overall training.
At least five of the other eight shooting victims have filed notices of claim with the New York City Comptroller’s office, a spokeswoman said, the first step toward filing a lawsuit.
Reporting By Chris Francescani; Editing by Nick Zieminski