A New York City police officer charged with killing an unarmed man in an apparent road rage shooting was acquitted of murder and manslaughter on Monday.
A Brooklyn jury returned the verdict at the trial of Wayne Isaacs, who was off duty on July 4, 2016, when he and Delrawn Small got into a traffic dispute that authorities said continued for several blocks.
“We are devastated and outraged that the jury failed to ensure justice by not holding NYPD Officer Wayne Isaacs accountable,” Small’s siblings said in a statement, adding that “our society must confront the problematic issues related to race and power that lead grand juries and juries to fail to hold officers fully accountable when they kill people of color.” Small was black, as is Isaacs.
The trial marked the first time the state attorney general prosecuted a police shooting of an unarmed victim since Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the office that role in August 2015 in response to a spate of civilian killings by police caught on video.
Isaacs was on the road in civilian clothes but still carrying a handgun following a shift that ended at midnight. A passenger in Small’s car told police Small grew angry because he thought Isaacs had cut him off and got out of his car at a stoplight to confront the officer.
Based on preliminary evidence, including Isaacs’ statements, police initially said they believed the officer opened fire after Small reached through an open driver’s side window and punched the officer while he sat behind the wheel of his car.
But a short black-and-white video, which surfaced on the internet, appeared to show Small getting struck by gunfire the moment he walks up to the car window, with no clear indication that he first assaulted the officer.
Small, 37, can be seen recoiling and stumbling around before collapsing. The officer briefly exits his car and looks in the fallen man’s direction but then returns to the car.
“At that point, I thought I was going to lose my life,” Isaacs told the jury. “Delrawn Small struck me; that’s the only reason I had to stop the threat of losing my life.”
“You could tell he was upset with me. At that time of the night, in that area of East New York, you know, I thought maybe he recognized me from a previous arrest or was a carjacking,” Isaac said. “Could tell he was in a rage coming at me.”
The issue of police accountability in the killings of unarmed black men and women, and the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities has roiled the country in recent years. But in most of the high-profile cases, the officers involved have been white, unlike in this case.
That doesn’t mean issues of race aren’t playing a role, in terms of perceptions of who’s seen as a threat, said Lester Spence, a political science and Africana studies professor at John Hopkins University.
“It’s about attitudes about subjects, attitudes about black bodies,” he said.
While research has shown that minority police officers can have better understanding of minority communities, they tend to police similarly to white officers, said Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University.
“It’s really a function of the perceived threat that they perceive in these encounters, and that could be true of an officer of any race,” he said.