It’s been six years since an off-duty New York City police officer killed Delrawn Small, and the Brooklyn man’s family is still hoping for justice.
On July 4, 2016, NYPD Officer Wayne Isaacs shot Small during a late-night road rage incident in Brooklyn. The 37-year-old approached the officer’s car, and the officer claimed he fired his gun in self-defense. Small, who was unarmed, was killed in front of his girlfriend, his teenage stepdaughter and his 4-month-old son, who watched from inside the car.
The shooting launched a series of investigations by prosecutors, law enforcement and the city’s police watchdog agency, each with their own findings and interpretations of the case. Years later, the shooting is now approaching the last stages of review – an administrative trial by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). The incident provides a window into the lengthy, complex process that follows killings by police and sheds light on why it takes so long for these types of cases to reach a final resolution.
“It’s been rough, to be honest,” Small’s brother, Victor Dempsey, told Gothamist shortly after the six-year anniversary of the shooting. “I don’t think any family should have to fight year after year after year after year just to get a sense or some measure of accountability.”
Dempsey has spent the past six years watching the security camera footage of the shooting in slow motion. He has pored over freeze frames of his brother’s every move and dissected the footage each way he could think of to make sense of that moment. The silent, grainy, black-and-white clip is still saved on his phone.
“I know that some folks think that it would drive me crazy, but I’ve watched that video well over, well over 100,000 times. Easily,” Dempsey said.
Isaacs was on his way home from work when Small approached his car, court records show. The officer, who is Black, has said he thought Small, who was also Black, was going to carjack him or recognized him from a past arrest and was angry. So, he pulled out his gun. Within moments, he fired three shots at Small, killing him.
But security footage that came out a few days later showed Small falling over and running away almost immediately after approaching the officer’s vehicle. The footage cast doubt on the initial police narrative. Dempsey has spent the past six years trying to prove the video contradicts the officer’s version of the events – and that his brother shouldn’t have been killed.
“My grief was in the lie,” he said. “My grief was proving everybody wrong. And I wasn’t grieving for my brother’s loss, because I had to show everybody, to even get the attention or to get people to understand that this was murder. I had to prove that they lied.”
The details were murky from the start. Dempsey remembers the confusion of the night his brother was killed. He was living in the suburbs at the time, and family in the city flooded him with calls and text messages, sharing piecemeal bits of information and urging him to get to Brooklyn. He raced to the scene with so many questions running through his mind.
When Dempsey arrived, he said, he crossed the yellow police tape lining the street and walked right past his brother’s body on the ground without even realizing he was there. He thought Small was still alive, getting treated at a hospital. But eventually, he understood why his cousins were crying and hugging. Someone told him that his brother had been killed. And then, he learned it had been a member of law enforcement who had pulled the trigger.
The officer was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter through a special unit in the state attorney general’s office that had recently been created to prosecute killings by police. A jury found him not guilty on all counts. Small’s family and his girlfriend have each settled lawsuits with the city. But the officer’s disciplinary case has been stuck in limbo ever since.
Few killings by police result in charges, convictions
It’s rare for law enforcement to face criminal consequences for killing someone, according to Bowling Green State University’s Police Crime Database.
Between 2005 and 2016, Bowling Green researchers have found that just 190 off-duty and 216 on-duty killings by police resulted in criminal charges, ranging from driving under the influence to murder. For comparison, police gunfire alone kills approximately 1,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force project. Only 250 of the killings tracked by Bowling Green’s database – about 60% – ended with a conviction. Some of those convictions were for less serious crimes than the original charge.
“If you or I went out tonight and shot and killed somebody and said it was a road rage incident or something like that, the police would start with a set of assumptions. They would start with: ‘This is a criminal homicide investigation,’” said Philip Stinson, who runs the database and is a leading researcher on the topic. “If they knew we were the shooter, we might be arrested right away.”
But that’s not how the investigation typically goes when an officer kills someone, Stinson said. The assumption from the start is that the killing was justified and that the officer did it to save their life, or someone else’s.
That makes prosecutors hesitant to take cases to court, Stinson said. In the few instances when they do, he added, juries can be tough to convince.
“They’re often very reluctant to second-guess the split-second life-or-death decisions of even an off-duty police officer in a potentially violent street encounter,” he said.
Stinson, who started his career in law enforcement before transitioning to academia, said officers often perceive potential threats differently because of their regular exposure to trauma. He noted that all the loud noises on July 4th, when Isaacs shot Small, can be particularly triggering for police.
Having a gun at the ready can further escalate the situation, even when officers are off the clock, Stinson said.
“In most places around the country, off-duty police officers are encouraged, if not required, to carry their weapons with them,” he said.
“That’s how we get these situations,” Stinson added. “Most plumbers, firefighters, professors don’t carry a handgun with them 24/7.”
The NYPD Administrative Guide advises officers not to carry their department-issued firearms when they are “engaged in any activity of a nature whereby it would be advisable NOT to carry a firearm,” such as when they are drinking. The section of the guide that outlines when officers should carry their department-issued firearms, however, is missing from a copy shared on the department’s website. The NYPD would not confirm if policy requires officers to carry off-duty in most cases or provide an explanation as to why the pages are missing from the guide.
The last step
When New York City officers are acquitted in court and cleared by the department, there can be one more test of culpability through the CCRB. The watchdog agency investigates complaints against NYPD officers. But the process can be slow – especially when police kill someone.
Prosecutors get to make their case first, and typically ask other entities to put their investigations on hold in the meantime, according to Daniel Bodah, who spent about seven years as an investigator at the CCRB in the early 2000s and now researches police misconduct for a criminal justice reform think tank. Next, the police department does its own review. Then, the CCRB can take one last look – not to find evidence of a crime, but to see if the officer violated any policies.
“We’re fighting for accountability. I can’t get my brother back. I can’t. The reason I still do this work is so other families don’t get the call we got.”
“It’s a different question than whether the officer committed a crime,” Bodah said.
“Isaacs was acquitted at trial. That does not bar the CCRB from making a finding of administrative misconduct, excessive force in violation of the patrol guide,” he said. “It’s just a different question with a different standard of proof.”
The CCRB launched an investigation into Isaacs’s actions in 2018 and recommended disciplinary charges against Isaacs in 2020. But for years, the process was stuck. The agency was essentially waiting for approval from the police department to move forward, until a couple months ago, when Keechant Sewell and Eric Adams, the new police commissioner and mayor, agreed to let the case move forward.
The next step would be an administrative trial, which the officer’s union tried to block. A judge sided with the CCRB earlier this year. Now, the agency is waiting to find out if it can access the criminal file for its case. The agency said it expects to take the case to trial once it has prepared the strongest case possible.
“CCRB has nothing new to add to this case, which has already been fully investigated and adjudicated by the NYPD,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “The police officer was also acquitted by a Brooklyn jury. CCRB is simply looking for a third bite at the apple in order to justify their bloated budget and advance their anticop agenda.”
It’s still possible that, after six years, Isaacs could stay on the force without any discipline. But he could be fired following a CCRB trial, like the officer who killed Eric Garner.
“What it really comes down to is that the CCRB is sort of left at the end of the line and not invited to participate until the last stages of the process,” Bodah said. “The Garner case is a perfect example of how, when nothing else happened, the CCRB came in, and it was because of what the CCRB did that Daniel Pantaleo was fired.”
Dempsey hopes that’s what happens in his brother’s case. He’s ready for six years of court dates and protests to be over. It’s been tough for his family.
“We’re fighting for accountability,” he said. “I can’t get my brother back. I can’t. The reason I still do this work is so other families don’t get the call we got.”