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Series: The NYPD Files
Investigating America’s Largest Police Force
In the spring of 2019, two New York City Police Department officers entered the Bronx apartment of Kawaski Trawick. The 32-year-old personal trainer and dancer had called 911 after locking himself out.
But 112 seconds after their arrival, footage showed, one of the officers shot and killed Trawick, despite the officer’s more-experienced partner repeatedly telling him not to use force.
When an internal investigation later cleared the officers — saying “no wrongdoing was found” — the NYPD offered no explanation for its reasoning. But records obtained by ProPublica can now reveal how the department came to that conclusion.
Investigators never explored key exchanges between the two officers in the run-up to the shooting. They also never followed up with the officers when their accounts contradicted the video evidence.
“Any conversation between you and your partner?” the head of the investigative unit asked Officer Herbert Davis hours after the shooting.
“No,” Davis answered.
That wasn’t true.
After arriving at Trawick’s apartment and finding him holding a stick and a bread knife, body-worn camera footage shows that Davis, who is Black, told his less-experienced white partner, Officer Brendan Thompson, not to use his Taser. “Don’t, don’t, don’t,” he said, motioning for Thompson to step back.
Thompson fired his Taser anyway, causing Trawick to become enraged, and Davis then tried to stop Thompson from shooting Trawick. “No, no, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” Davis said, before briefly pushing Thompson’s gun down.
The investigators had access to all that footage. They never asked either officer about it.
ProPublica obtained the NYPD’s full internal investigation, including audio of interviews with both officers, via a Freedom of Information Law request.
The documents and interviews provide a rare window into how exactly a police department examines the conduct of its own officers after a shooting. The newly released information also expands the public record of the Trawick case as New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board pursues disciplinary charges against both officers for wrongfully going into Trawick’s apartment and failing to render aid after he’d been shot. Thompson faces additional charges for his use of force.
The officers are contesting the charges in an ongoing administrative trial. Neither their lawyers nor their union responded to requests for comment for this story, but Thompson told police investigators that before firing on Trawick, “I feared for my safety.” The NYPD did not respond to ProPublica’s detailed questions or a request to interview Deputy Chief Kevin Maloney, the former investigative unit head who questioned both officers. He is scheduled to testify in the administrative trial on Thursday.
The NYPD’s Force Investigation Division, which conducted the investigation of Trawick’s death, was created after the killing of Eric Garner and focuses on officer shootings and other uses of force.
“You put some of your top investigators,” said then-Commissioner William Bratton in 2015 when he started the unit. “I will get a better investigation, a speedy investigation, a more comprehensive investigation.”
The investigation of Trawick’s killing took nearly two years. The two officers, Thompson and Davis, were each interviewed once, for about 30 minutes. (Bratton, who stepped down as commissioner in 2016, did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the files, investigators often refer to Trawick as “the perpetrator,” though it’s not clear that he had committed any crime — he had called 911 after he locked himself out of his apartment. They also repeatedly portray Trawick as effectively to blame for what happened.
“Due to the perpetrator becoming more agitated by the officers presence, Police Officer Thompson had deployed his taser,” an investigator wrote.
Trawick had struggled with his mental health and with drugs. A security guard in the building had also called 911 saying Trawick was acting erratically.
But by the time the officers arrived, Trawick had already been let back into his apartment by the Fire Department. “Why are you in my home?” he repeatedly asked the officers.
The interview sessions include a number of false and misleading statements by the officers.
For example, Davis told investigators that Thompson fired his Taser after Trawick started to “take a step forward, like if he wanted to come at us.” But the footage shows Trawick wasn’t advancing when Thompson, holding his gun in one hand and the Taser in the other, used his Taser on Trawick without any warning.
Thompson recalled that after he used the Taser, he again tried to warn Trawick. “I tell him to drop the knife you know a bunch of times.” The footage shows no such warnings were issued between when Thompson used his Taser and when he shot four times, killing Trawick.
Investigators never followed up. Beyond asking the officers whether they were wearing cameras, the investigators never questioned Thompson and Davis about any of the footage.
“That’s huge, they intentionally did that,” said John Baeza, a former detective who spent 16 years with the NYPD and now works as an expert witness. “That has to be intent not to question them about that.”
The investigators found no wrongdoing even when they were confronted with apparent violations of protocol.
Thompson, for instance, told investigators that he believed Trawick to be an “emotionally disturbed” person. The NYPD patrol guide says that officers facing a potentially dangerous person in crisis should “isolate and contain” them — that text is underlined — and should “immediately request the response of a supervisor and Emergency Services Unit.”
Neither Thompson nor Davis did so.
At one point, the chief investigator, Maloney, asked Davis why they didn’t call for help. “We didn’t feel we needed anybody just yet,” Davis responded. “We didn’t know how bad it was until we open the door.” Investigators did not press the issue.
A former NYPD detective who helped create de-escalation training for the department previously told ProPublica that Davis and Thompson could have simply closed the door and called in the specialized unit.
The timing and circumstances of the interviews were also significant. While Davis was interviewed just hours after the shooting, Thompson was interviewed roughly seven months later and, he said during the interview, he was given the body-worn camera footage to watch first. Advocates and many experts say officers shouldn’t be allowed to preview footage of incidents before talking to investigators in case the officers try to alter their testimony.
Though the NYPD allowed the officer who shot Trawick to see the footage during the investigation, the department long refused to show it to the public or the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The department withheld footage for more than a year and fought against a lawsuit that had sought the full recording, arguing that releasing it would interfere with the department’s investigation.
A state judge later ruled that the NYPD had illegally withheld footage and acted in “bad faith.”
When the full full footage was disclosed, it showed what happened in the minutes after the shooting. After a sergeant arrived and asked whether anyone was hurt, two officers responded in near-unison, “Nobody. Just a perp.”
The Bronx District Attorney investigated the shooting but declined to prosecute.
In the end, the NYPD investigators summarized their findings with a simple line: “No violation of department policy occurred.”
Asked about the investigation, Trawick’s mother, Ellen Trawick, called it “outrageous.” The details, she said, “show the NYPD never even tried to do a real investigation.”
The disciplinary trial of the two officers is scheduled to end in the next few days. But regardless of the ruling by the NYPD judge overseeing it, police Commissioner Keechant Sewell has the sole authority over what, if any, punishment to impose.