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NEW YORK – Lawyers in a disciplinary case for a police officer accused of killing an unarmed 18-year-old in a New York City home in 2012 agreed Tuesday that the officer had reason to suspect the victim had a gun, but clashed sharply over the officer's response.
New York Police Department lawyer Beth Douglas told an administrative judge that Officer Richard Haste should be kicked off the force for demonstrating "poor judgment" by not taking obvious steps to defuse a fatal standoff that became an early focal point for national outrage over police use of deadly force against black men. Haste is white, the victim, Ramarley Graham, was black.
"The tragic death of Ramarley Graham at the hands of Officer Haste could have and should have been avoided," Douglas said in opening statements at an administrative proceeding at NYPD headquarters that followed decisions not to bring criminal charges.
Defense attorney Stuart London argued Haste's actions were justified because other officers had warned over their radios that they saw what appeared to be a gun stuffed in Graham's waistband. No weapon was found.
"Police work should not be subject to second-guessing," London said. "Officers have to make split-second decisions on what to do."
The attorney also referred to Haste both as a "scapegoat" and as a "hero officer who was attempting to take a weapon off the street."
The shooting stemmed from an investigation of drug dealing in Graham's Bronx neighborhood. A narcotics team spotted the teen and some friends leaving a known drug location when they began to tail them.
After surveillance officers radioed their suspicions about a gun, Haste and his partner — wearing street clothes and NYPD raid jackets — followed Graham to his home. They got a neighbor to let them into the apartment house before breaking down his family's front door on the second floor.
Haste was the first one in and when he spotted Graham, he ordered him to stop and show his hands at least three times, the officer's lawyer said.
"If these simple words had been adhered to, there would have been no shooting," the lawyer said.
Graham instead ducked into a bathroom, where Haste claims the suspect began to reach into his waistband, prompting the officer to fire the fatal round into his chest. Investigators believe Graham had been trying to dump a bag of marijuana into the toilet.
On Tuesday, the police lawyer said the officer missed several opportunities to follow protocols for getting suspects to surrender. Once Graham ran into his home, the officer should have guarded the front door, called for backup and waited for instructions from a sergeant, she said.
"The tactical failure of Officer Haste rests solely on him," she said.
The disciplinary trial is expected to last about a week, including testimony from Haste, who was taken off enforcement duty but still collects a NYPD paycheck. An administrative judge will recommend a punishment that still would need approval from the police commissioner.
Graham's family has settled a wrongful death against the city for $3.9 million. His mother, Constance Malcolm, told said Tuesday that she still wants Haste to pay with his job.
"This man murdered my son," Malcolm said. "I'm not asking for anything special. I want justice."