The call came just a couple of hours into the police night tour on Friday, practically routine on a given evening in New York City. A mother said she was arguing with her son, who had verbally threatened her, and wanted officers to come to talk to him in their apartment in Harlem. Three officers — one who started last year, his partner with four years’ experience on the job and a rookie riding along to observe — pulled up outside the block of squat buildings and entered.
They were met by the mother and a second son, according to the account the police shared on Friday, bolstered on Saturday by a police official briefed on the investigation. He’s in the back bedroom, the mother told the officers, and called for him to come out. When there was no response, the two officers made their way down a cramped hallway toward the open door, one behind the other, the lead officer calling the son’s name. The trainee stayed back to collect information from the family.
Then the son appeared in the bedroom doorway, releasing a deadly hail of gunfire that shattered the calm and rocked a city already on edge from a monthslong crest of lethal and senseless violence. The 47-year-old son, criminally noteworthy only for a 19-year-old drug conviction and older arrests out of state, raised a black handgun with a bizarre Tommy-gun-style attachment and opened fire, killing Officer Jason Rivera, 22, and gravely injuring his partner, Wilbert Mora, 27.
The rookie in the living room rushed the mother and the second son into the kitchen for safety. The gunman, Lashawn McNeil, emerged from the hallway, and the rookie shot him twice, in the head and the arm. He was in critical condition on Saturday.
The shootings, the third and fourth of New York City police officers in the line of duty in the last week, were a grim reminder of the dangers of workaday policing and the potential for deadly violence behind even mundane calls. They also underscored the danger to the city posed by the persistent flow of illegal firearms through the so-called Iron Pipeline up the Eastern Seaboard.
And as a new mayor focuses his administration on public safety, the violence threatened to reinforce a perception that New York was returning to a state of lawlessness and despair reminiscent of the “Fear City” era of the 1970s. The mayor, Eric Adams, said on Saturday that he would soon unveil a new plan to reduce gun violence.
The two officers were fresh-faced poster boys for today’s Police Department, Latino recruits who represent the next generation of what was once a heavily Irish and Italian force, now majority-minority in its ranks.
“Officer Rivera is one of those officers who took the job because he wanted to bridge the gap between police and community,” said Kevin C. Riley, a councilman from the Bronx, who said a close friend of his had attended the police academy with the slain patrolman. “He wanted to showcase that we have to be a part of the system to change the system. He was only 22 years old and he realized that at a young age.”
The gunman, at least in the public record, seemed to be a reformed, middle-aged ex-convict who had put the crimes of his youth behind him. His mother, in her call to the police, made no mention of violence or weapons in the apartment, and his mind-set and the motivations behind the shooting remain unknown.
Guns and Gun Control in the U.S.
The shootings immediately called to mind the assassinations of two officers in 2014, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were sitting in their radio car when a gunman approached and opened fire. That man had traveled to New York City from Baltimore, saying he intended to kill officers after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of the police.
In that way, the two shootings, however different their circumstances, seemed immediately linked by the social and political upheaval in which they were set.
After a round table on gun violence in the Bronx, on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Adams said that Officer Mora was still “fighting for his life” and called for the city to remain united against violence. He said that he would roll out more public safety initiatives next week, including having his agency commissioners meet with the city’s crisis management organizations, which work to reduce gun violence in the areas where it is highest.
Mr. Adams called on leaders in Washington to pass the Build Back Better Act, which contains $5 billion in funding for anti-violence initiatives. He said that he would soon release a detailed report identifying how laws and institutions like the court system contribute to the problem and how they could be fixed.
“Many people often talk about bail reform,” Mr. Adams said, referring to a change to New York law, criticized by law enforcement groups, that eliminated cash bail for many nonviolent crimes. “But there are other rivers that are feeding this sea of violence. And if we don’t identify them correctly and put in a plan to remove them, we are never going to resolve this issue of violence.”
At a Saturday evening vigil outside the 32nd Precinct station house, near where the shooting occurred, Letitia James, the New York attorney general, said that stemming the flow of illegal firearms into the city was central to addressing gun violence. Though gun manufacturers are granted broad immunity from lawsuits over shootings, Ms. James said her office would use a New York law passed last year to “look to develop a case to hold gun manufacturers liable” for what she said was their negligence.
The police said the gun Mr. McNeil used had been reported stolen in Baltimore years earlier and was equipped with a high-capacity drum magazine capable of holding 40 rounds.
In her 911 call, Mr. McNeil’s mother was calm and said she was not in immediate harm, a police official said. She said that she had recently undergone surgery and had a stent put in and that Mr. McNeil had come to New York in November from his home in Baltimore to assist her in her recovery. Though the police initially said that Mr. McNeil was on parole in New York, an official said on Saturday that was inaccurate.
After the shooting, she told the police that she had seen a gun in his possession during a past visit to Maryland and that she had told him that if he came to New York, he was not to bring any guns, the police official said.
Friday’s shooting represents a worst-nightmare scenario for domestic disturbance calls, which are a common part of police work but can turn perilous in an instant, said Keith Taylor, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a 23-year veteran of the city’s Police Department.
“You don’t know what you don’t know, and there’s a lot you don’t know when you’re going into someone’s home,” Mr. Taylor said. “In this situation a routine call ended up with deadly consequences, which really means that there are no routine calls.”
He, like others, reflected on the slain Officer Rivera’s enthusiasm for his work. “He had been so young, so new on the job,” Mr. Taylor said, pausing briefly to compose himself. “There’s a real level of devastation that I think anyone who has worn the uniform feels, as well as the community.”
Officer Rivera came of age in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan, in the era of stop-and-frisk policing, and his family was subjected to random pat-downs, he wrote in a formal letter to the commanding officer of the police academy in 2020, when he was in training. “I remember one day when I witnessed my brother being stopped and frisked, I asked myself, why are we being pulled over if we are in a taxi?” he wrote. “My perspective on police and the way they police really bothered me.”
He said that the department’s efforts toward improving its relationship with the community had led him to become a police officer. He wrote, “I wanted to be a part of the men in blue; better the relationship between the community and the police.”
His youthful ambitions he described in the letter would foreshadow his death on the job: “I know that something as small as helping a tourist with directions, or helping a couple resolve an issue, will put a smile on someone’s face.”
Regine Colo, who went to high school with Officer Rivera in Washington Heights, remembered him for his sense of humor and kindness.
“He was one of the most funniest people we’ve known, and also a really good friend, empathetic friend, always there,” said Ms. Colo, 23.
The year 2021 was the deadliest in recent years for law enforcement officers, according to F.B.I. statistics. Nationally, 73 officers were killed in the line of duty, compared with 46 the year before — though none in the Northeast.
Friday’s shooting reverberated far from Harlem. President Biden addressed the incident on Twitter on Saturday: “Jill and I are saddened to hear two NYPD officers were shot last night — one fatally. We’re keeping them and their families in our prayers. Officers put on the badge and head into harm’s way every day. We’re grateful to them and their families for their extraordinary sacrifice.”
But the loss of life was most profoundly felt on the streets of the city. On Saturday morning, outside the apartment building, Latisha Mercedes pushed her daughter in a stroller as she walked to the Y.M.C.A. across the street. She seemed to speak for these fraught months past as she paused beneath the bright morning sky.
“I just hope this dark cloud lifts,” she said.
Ali Watkins, Ashley Southall, Jeffery C. Mays, Troy Closson, Chelsia Rose Marcius and William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.