NEW YORK (Reuters) – A gunman ambushed and fatally shot two New York City police officers on Saturday and then killed himself, police said, and a social media post indicated it may have been in revenge for the police chokehold death of an unarmed black man.
If the killings do turn out to have been motivated by the death of Eric Garner, they could inflame tension over race and law enforcement that have dogged New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, sparked protests around the country and drawn in President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder.
The officers were killed without warning and at close range as they sat in their squad car in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Police Commissioner William Bratton told a news conference, flanked by de Blasio.
“Although we’re still learning the details, it’s clear that this was an assassination, that these officers were shot execution style,” said de Blasio.
New York police have come under intense pressure in recent weeks. Protests erupted after a grand jury declined this month to charge a white police officer involved in Garner’s chokehold death during an arrest attempt in July in Staten Island borough.
Bratton identified the gunman in Saturday’s shooting as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, and said he took a shooter’s stance on the passenger side of the squad car, opening fire with a silver semi-automatic handgun. He then fled into a nearby subway station and died there from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, Bratton said.
The police chief identified the slain officers as Rafael Ramos, 40, and Wenjian Liu, 32. Liu had been married for two months. Ramos had a 13-year-old son.
The killings were the first time New York City police officers have been killed by gunfire since 2011 and sparked bitter anger among some police against de Blasio, who they see as not supportive enough in the face of public anger.
The mayor has had a prickly relationship with law enforcement as he tries to balance regard for civil liberties with police concerns.
Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that is the country’s largest municipal police union, said, “There’s blood on many hands tonight.”
“Those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day,” Lynch told a news conference.
“That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.”
Demonstrations over Garner’s death came on top of protests around the country over another grand jury’s decision in November not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
Obama was briefed on the killings while on vacation in Hawaii. He later said in a statement he unconditionally condemned the shootings, adding that police officers “deserve our respect and gratitude every single day.”