NEW YORK (Reuters) - Police officers in dress uniform and other mourners joined a somber, four-block line outside a New York City church on Friday for the wake of one of two officers shot by a man who said he was avenging the killing of unarmed black men by police.
Targeted for their uniform, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were slain last Saturday afternoon while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn in what is only the seventh instance of police partners being killed together in the city in more than 40 years.
Draped in the New York Police Department’s green, white and blue flag, Ramos’s coffin was carried into a church in his suburban Queens neighborhood by police officers as colleagues from his Brooklyn station house stood saluting.
“He was this beam of light,” Elizabeth Vidal, who had known Ramos for more than a decade as a fellow usher at Christ Tabernacle Church, said as she waited to go inside, her voice cracking with sadness.
Ramos, 40, had been on the force for two years and was raising two teenage sons with his wife, Maritza.
His funeral on Saturday will come at the end of a week in which blame swirled and heated rhetoric flashed across a city that had largely escaped some of the more violent outbursts seen in six months of nationwide protests against police use of force.
In extraordinary scenes at the hospital where Liu and Ramos were taken on Saturday, police union leaders, angered by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s qualified support of the protesters, said the mayor had “blood on his hands”. As the mayor arrived at the hospital, some officers turned their backs to him in a pointed display of disrespect.
Two days later, a visibly angered de Blasio chastised journalists at a news conference for what he called “divisive” coverage, while urging activists to halt demonstrations until after the police funerals. Over the week, however, small groups of protesters continued to take to the streets chanting “How do you spell murderer? NYPD” and other anti-police chants.
The mayor has said he hopes the funerals will help mend the city’s fractured mood. Some people attending the wake saw little reason to refrain from criticism.
Marta Mares, who said she only learned Ramos was a neighbor after his death, arrived at the church two hours early.
“We want to support NYPD officers because now we can see what danger they are in, especially under Mayor de Blasio,” she said.
“We love you guys,” a woman shouted from a crowd of onlookers as Bill Bratton, the city’s police commissioner, headed into the church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, and Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, also visited.
Thousands of police officers from departments around the country, including those in St. Louis, Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., were expected to join U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and other officials for the funeral service at the church on Saturday. Nearly 700 officers had taken up an offer JetBlue Airways Corp to fly two members of each law enforcement agency to New York for free, an airline spokeswoman said.
With a crowd of thousands expected, a large screen was set up on an intersection near the church to relay the service to the overflow. Security was tight, with about a dozen blocks closed to traffic. Police dogs sniffed the streets, and officers could be seen watching on nearby rooftops.
Police had yet to announce details for the funeral of Liu, 32, while federal officials helped relatives in China travel to the United States.
The execution-style killing was so swift, according to the city’s police commissioner, that the officers may never have seen their assailant, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, who soon after shot himself and died in a nearby subway station.
Brinsley, who was black, wrote online that he wanted to kill police officers to avenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, unarmed black men killed by white policemen in New York and Ferguson, Missouri. Ramos and Liu were not involved in those cases and others that have sparked protests.
The deaths of Garner and Brown and the decisions not to prosecute the officers responsible ignited protests across the country, renewing a debate about race in America that has drawn in U.S. President Barack Obama.
Protest leaders expressed horror at the killings, saying they were not responsible for the actions of a man described by city officials as emotionally troubled. Brinsley shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore before traveling to Brooklyn.
Relatives of Garner joined civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton on Christmas Day to say prayers for both Ramos and Liu.
Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington, Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans and Mark Guarino in Chicago; Editing by Howard Goller and Christian Plumb