Police defend decision not to disclose accidental gunshot during Columbia protest response

May 3, 2024, 10:53 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City police officials on Friday defended their decision to initially keep quiet about a potentially dangerous accident that happened as officers cleared pro-Palestinian protesters from Columbia University this week when a sergeant accidentally fired his gun into a dark office.

The bullet, discharged as the officer transferred his gun to his left hand while trying to get into the locked room, crashed through a glass panel in a door and landed harmlessly on the floor. The office was vacant, so nobody was hit, police officials said at a news conference Friday.

Neither the city’s mayor, Eric Adams, nor any other official mentioned the accidental gunshot in news conferences or media interviews held since police cleared protesters from Columbia’s Hamilton Hall on Tuesday.

The department’s chief spokesperson, Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Tarik Sheppard, said Friday that he didn’t think it was particularly newsworthy because officers accidentally fire their guns about eight times a year and it rarely gets much attention.

“My goal here was not to just try and make a story,” Sheppard said. “I knew it would come up eventually because it always does. So there was no rush for us to talk about this.”

Asked whether the department would release body camera footage of the incident, Sheppard said no. The department has selectively released some body camera footage and video taken by department officials during the operation to clear protesters from the Columbia building, but requests for unedited footage have been refused.

The accidental discharge remained unknown to the public until it was reported by the news site The City on Thursday. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is investigating the incident, a spokesperson said.

The sergeant, who was not identified, was carrying a gun with flashlight attached as he and other officers searched Hamilton Hall for anyone who might be hiding, Assistant Chief Carlos Valdez, head of the NYPD emergency service unit, said at Friday’s news conference.

“During the course of this operation, while clearing an unoccupied vacant area of the building on the first floor, one ESU member, a sergeant, did unintentionally discharge one round from his firearm,” Valdez said.

Valdez said the accidental discharge occurred after police broke the glass panel of a locked office door in order to get inside the office and make sure no one was inside. The gun went off as the sergeant switched it from his right hand to his left hand in order to reach in through the broken window and unlock the door with his right hand, Valdez said.

The bullet landed on the floor of the office and struck no one, he said.

The following day, Adams, a Democrat and former police officer, praised the operation to clear Hamilton Hall, a site of protests and occupations since 1968.

“Just a tremendous job done by the men and women of the NYPD,” the mayor said at a briefing on Wednesday. “Such restraint, such precision.”

No mention was made of the unintentional gunshot.

Police in New York City do not generally inform the public about accidental gunshots unless a person is struck by gunfire.

Asked Friday why police had not informed the public about the Hamilton Hall incident, Sheppard said, “I didn’t make the decision that we wanted to address the accidental discharge at that time because we normally don’t address them.”

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Police defend decision not to disclose accidental gunshot during Columbia protest response