NEW YORK, NEW YORK – Questions have been raised over the New York police department’s handling of a shooting near the Empire State Building after armed officers injured nine passers-by as they pursued a gunman who had just shot dead his former boss.
One of those injured by police told the Guardian that officers appeared to fire “randomly” as they confronted Jeffrey Johnson, 58, minutes after a workplace dispute escalated into a chaotic shootout in one of the busiest parts of Manhattan.
Reports suggest that while Johnson drew his gun when he was confronted by officers, he did not fire; all those injured appear to have been shot by police. The New York police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, said officers had no choice but to act as they did: police discharged 14 rounds and the gunman died at the scene.
The incident began just after 9am on Friday when Johnson, described as a “disgruntled former employee”, walked up to Steve Ercolino, 41, his former manager at Hazan Imports, a business that operates from premises in Midtown, near the Empire State Building. Johnson shot him three times before calmly walking away.
A construction worker alterted two police officers stationed at the landmark. They appear to have attempted to stop Johnson, who dropped a bag and pulled out his gun, according to witnesses. In the ensuing shootout, Johnson died.
Panic soon ensued in the tourist-heavy streets around the Empire State Building, with fears that another mass shooting was under way. However, it became clear that it was not a random attack when police revealed the victim was targeted. Johnson had previously been fired from the business.
Robert Asika was among those wounded, shot in the elbow from a distance of around eight feet by one of the two police officers who confronted Johnson. He accused police of “shooting randomly”, and said he saw at least two others hit by police bullets.
“If you’re gonna aim try and aim perfectly. If you wanna aim at the target, you got to know what you’re doing because it’s the street,” Asika said. “I could have been dead right now. I could have been dead.”
Asika was working on 5th Avenue on Friday morning, selling tickets for tour buses and the building’s observation deck. He had only been in the job a week, after having been unemployed for over a year. “I was just standing there and I saw people running. I didn’t want to run because I wanted to know why people were running so I turned around and I saw this guy,” he said.
“He was suited up, he had like a tie and a briefcase. If you see him, you’d probably think he was like a doctor, or maybe a lawyer, a business guy. He just looked like a normal guy.”
Johnson, who was wearing a light-coloured suit, had just killed his former boss and was walking calmly away. “Jeffrey just came from behind two cars, pulled out his gun, put it up to Steve’s head and shot him,” said Carol Timan, whose daughter, Irene, was walking to Hazan Imports at the time with Ercolino. A construction worker saw the shooting and told two police officers who were stationed outside the Empire State Building.
The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg – a vocal critic of America’s lax firearm controls – said: “Once again, there are an awful lot of guns out there.” He added that although homicides in New York were on the decline, “we are not immune to the problem of gun violence”.
Police said Johnson been employed for six years as a designer of women’s accessories at Hazan Imports. Kelly said during a press conference that he was laid off as part of a downsizing at the firm. Kelly described the gunman as a “disgruntled former employee” who came back to confront his former manager. “He shot and killed the former co-worker, striking him three times,” Kelly said.
Johnson moved to draw his weapon, a .45 caliber handgun, as the officers approached, police said. There are conflicting reports as to what happened next. “The [police] tape clearly shows that the gunman had the gun out, and was trying to kill the officers,” Bloomberg said. Other officials at the scene reportedly said the man had not fired on police.
The two police officers discharged 14 rounds, killing Johnson outside the entrance to the Empire State Building. Kelly at first said Johnson fired on officers, but police later said they were trying to determine whether Johnson fired. “These officers … had absolutely no choice,” Kelly said. “This individual took a gun out very close to them and perhaps fired at them.”
Johnson legally bought the gun in Sarasota, Florida, in 1991, but he did not have a required permit to possess the weapon in New York City, police said.
Four women and five men were taken to city hospitals with gunshot wounds, but none was believed to be in a life-threatening condition. Police shut down nearby streets as forensic teams checked the gunman’s body. The FBI were quick to confirm that the attack was not an act of terrorism.
Askia described the scene when officers caught up with Johnson. He said the gunman stopped six feet away from him, with two officers about eight feet in the other direction. “All of a sudden the guy stopped, and he was facing a cop who was following him,” Asika said.
“He just reached in his suit and took out the gun, and I saw him pull it [towards] the cops. I’m like, is this guy for real? One of the cops was trying to shoot back at him and one of them shot me while the other one shot the guy.”
“As soon as the bullet hit me, I felt like I didn’t feel it. But then as soon as I tried to get up, I couldn’t get up. I looked there and the blood was gushing out,” Asika said.
“I was crawling, trying to get across the street, to the safe side of the street. I got across the street and I just fell at the bus stop and I was laying there and I couldn’t get up no more. I was so tired, I was so scared. I’ve never been scared like that in my whole life.”
Asika said Bloomberg visited him in hospital, but he received no apology from police. He was discharged with his arm bandaged and in a sling.
Erica Solar, a mother of two who works as a receptionist on 37th Street, was hit in the back of the leg as she made her way to Dunkin’ Donuts. Solar’s friend, Christopher Collins, found her lying on the street as he got off a bus on his way to work.
“She was basically in shock. She didn’t know if she had gotten stabbed or if she had gotten shot, but she just knew she was bleeding, and I was just there trying to keep her calm until paramedics arrived,” Collins told the Guardian.
“It was chaotic. Everybody was running, cops were there immediately,” Collins said. Solar was taken to Bellevue hospital, about a mile from the Empire State Building.
Another among the wounded was Media Rosario, from Brooklyn, who like Solar was hit in the back of the leg. She said that everything happened so fast, she saw people running, and when she turned around to see what happened, she was already shot,” said her sister-in-law, Auselis Rosario.
Johnson lived alone in the Upper East Side, his superintendent, Guillermo Suarez confirmed to the Associated Press. Suarez described Johnson as a “very likeable guy” who always wore a suit. “He was always alone,” said Gisela Casella, who lived a few floors above him. “I always felt bad. I said ‘Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?’ I never saw him with anybody.”
City officials were quick to praise the response by police and the construction worker who followed Johnson from the site of the initial shooting.
Bloomberg said: “We all use the word ‘hero’ – he did what he should have done.” The mayor added: “He saw something, he said something” – the phrase has become the backbone of efforts to get New York residents to be vigilant ever since the September 11 attacks. The actions of both the worker and police officers may have prevented further injuries, Bloomberg and Kelly said.
The incident puts gun crime in America back in the spotlight. As with other high-profile summer shootings in the US – at a movie theatre in Colorado on 20 July and at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier this month – it is thought unlikely that Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will address the issue in an election year.