NEW YORK — The New York Police Department says a gunman who ambushed two officers in their car told two passers-by to “watch what I’m going to do.”
Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce says 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley talked to people on the street just moments before the shooting and told them to follow him on the social media site Instagram.
Boyce said Brinsley had a criminal history with at least 19 arrests and his family told police he tried to hang himself last year.
Brinsley approached a parked squad car from behind on Saturday and opened fire, fatally striking two officers before killing himself. Hours earlier, he had shot and wounded his former girlfriend at her home outside Baltimore.
Boyce says Brinsley had ranted online about police and government and expressed despair about his own life.
Big-city police departments and union leaders warned officers Sunday to change up their routines and insist on extra backup after the shooting.
The killings on Saturday dramatically escalated tensions that have simmered for months over the deaths of young black men by police.
Investigators were trying to determine if the killer really had a deep sympathy for the protests or simply latched on to the cause for the final act of a violent spree.
The siege mentality was evident in several memos circulating among the rank and file at the 35,000-officer New York Police Department, the largest in the U.S.
A union-generated message warned police officers they should respond to every radio call with two cars — “no matter what the opinion of the patrol supervisor” — and to not make arrests “unless absolutely necessary.” The president of the detectives’ union told members in a letter to work in threes when out on the street, wear bulletproof vests and keep aware of their surroundings.
“Cowards such as yesterday’s killer strike when you are distracted and vulnerable,” the letter read.
Another directive warned officers in Newark, New Jersey, not to patrol alone and avoid people looking for confrontations with them. At the same time, a memo from an NYPD chief asked officers to avoid fanning rage within the ranks by limiting comments “via all venues, including social media, to expressions of sorrow and condolence. … Even in our most difficult times, we will remain consummate professionals.”
The shooter, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, travelled by bus to New York City on Saturday after wounding his girlfriend. Once he arrived, he approached a parked squad car and opened fire, striking Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in the head.
Before the shootings, Brinsley wrote on an Instagram account: “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs,” officials said. He used the hashtags Shootthepolice RIPErivGardner (sic) RIPMikeBrown — references to the police killing of two unarmed black men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
The slayings come at a tense time; Police in New York and nationwide are being criticized for their tactics, following the July death of Garner, who was stopped in the New York City borough of Staten Island on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Amateur video captured an officer wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck and wrestling him to the ground. Garner was heard gasping, “I can’t breathe” before he lost consciousness and later died.
Demonstrators around the country have staged die-ins and other protests since a grand jury decided Dec. 3 not to indict the officer in Garner’s death, a decision that closely followed a Missouri grand jury’s refusal to indict a white officer in the fatal shooting of Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in August.
Commissioner William Bratton said Saturday that the suspect had a history of making anti-police comments. But it remained unclear Sunday whether he had any involvement in the protest movement.
Court records in Georgia show that Brinsley had several run-ins with the law there in recent years. Charges included gun possession, shop-lifting and theft.
Bratton and New York Mayor Bill De-Blasio attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Cardinal Timothy Dolan called for calm. He asked the police commissioner to tell his troops that “we love them very much, we mourn with them, we need them, we respect them, we’re proud of them and we thank them.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams visited a makeshift memorial at the site of the slayings, calling on protest organizers to “hold off on any type of protest until these officers are laid to rest in a peaceful manner.”
At an appearance with the Rev. Al Sharpton, a prominent civil rights activist who denounced “eye-for-an-eye-violence” against police, Garner’s mother expressed her dismay.
“I’m standing here in sorrow about losing those two police officers that was definitely not our agenda,” Gwen Garner said.
“We are going in peace and anyone who’s standing with us we want you to not use Eric Garner’s name for violence because we are not about that,” she said. “These two police officers lost their lives senselessly and our condolence to the family and we stand with the families.”
With files from Verena Dobnik, Mike Balsamo and Deepti Hajela, Associated Press