What Can the Murder of a Police Officer Tell Us About Second Chances?

The man suspected of the killing was diverted out of prison into a treatment program.
Law enforcement officials lay flowers in tribute to slain New York Police Department officer Randolph Holder at the National September 11 Memorial on Oct. 22. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Oct 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When Tyrone Howard appeared in court last October, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edward McLaughlin saw a man with a history of nonviolent drug charges who was struggling with addiction. On the recommendation of a social worker’s report, McLaughlin ordered Howard to take part in a drug treatment program rather than head to jail, giving him a chance to clean up his act.

A year later, Howard is the prime suspect in the shooting death of a 33-year-old New York City police officer on Tuesday night in East Harlem. He was charged with first-degree murder and robbery.

The death of Officer Randolph Holder has highlighted the challenge of deciding which offenders should be diverted from the prison system, a practice more and more experts, activists, politicians, and other stakeholders have been calling for in recent years. Drug courts and other diversion programs, as well as reforms to harsh drug laws, have already helped reduce state prison populations. In spite of McLaughlin’s assessment that treatment would be more beneficial to Howard than jail, there is no way to be certain a candidate for treatment will succeed.

“Tragedies like the shooting death of officer Holder bring into stark and sobering relief the precarious realities and complexities of dealing with offenders, their criminal histories, and available assessment instruments in making decisions regarding custody and release,” former Boston police officer Thomas Nolan told TakePart. “It is an inexact science at best.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton have criticized the decision to put Howard back on the streets. On Friday, de Blasio called for changes to New York state law to allow judges to consider a criminal’s risk to public safety when determining bail, telling reporters that “some people are irredeemable.”

“If ever there was a candidate not to be diverted, it was this guy,” Bratton said at a press conference on Thursday. “He’s a poster boy for not being diverted. His whole life has been about an escalation of crime.”

Howard had been arrested 23 times as an adult, according to The New York Times. Though he has no violent felony convictions, one of those arrests was related to a shoot-out in 2009 in which an 11-year-old boy and an elderly man were injured, though Howard was not convicted. At the time of his arrest on Tuesday, he was wanted for a separate shooting that took place on Sept. 1 (the NYPD had been unable to locate him).

McLaughlin, acknowledging that Holder’s death is “an absolute tragedy,” defended his choice to steer Howard away from prison. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office had recommended a prison sentence of six years. Howard stopped showing up to court dates and status meetings in August.

“I don’t get a crystal ball when I get a robe,” McLaughlin told the New York Daily News. “The man is 30 years old. He’s been in jail and hasn’t learned anything.”