NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Police officers in dress uniform and other mourners lined up quietly for two blocks at a New York City church to pay their respects to one of two officers shot by a man who said he was avenging killings of unarmed black men by police.
Targeted for their uniform, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were slain last Saturday afternoon while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn in what is only the seventh instance of police partners being killed together in the city in more than 40 years.
Draped in the New York Police Department’s green, white and blue flag, Ramos’ coffin was carried into the church he regularly attended in his suburban Queens neighbourhood by police officers as colleagues from his Brooklyn station house stood saluting.
“He was this beam of light,” said Elizabeth Vidal, who had known Ramos for more than a decade as a fellow congregant and usher at Christ Tabernacle Church as she waited to go into the wake, her voice cracking with sadness.
Ramos, 40, had been on the force for two years and was raising two teenage sons with his wife, Maritza.
His funeral on Saturday will come at the end of a week in which blame swirled and heated rhetoric flashed across a city that had largely escaped some of the more violent outbursts seen in six months of nationwide protests against police use of force.
In extraordinary scenes at the hospital where Liu and Ramos were taken on Saturday, police union leaders, angered by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s qualified support of the protesters, said the mayor had “blood on his hands”.
As the mayor arrived at the hospital, some officers turned their backs to him in a pointed display of disrespect.
A visibly angered de Blasio later snapped at some journalists at a press conference, chastising them for what he called “divisive” coverage, while urging activists to halt demonstrations until after the police funerals.
In the following days, however, small groups of protesters continued to take to the streets chanting “How do you spell murderer? NYPD” and other anti-police chants.
The mayor has said he hopes the funerals will help unite a divided city. Some people attending the wake saw little reason to refrain from criticism.
Marta Mares, who said she only learned Ramos was a neighbour after his death, arrived with her daughter two hours before the church doors were due to open.
“We want to support NYPD officers because now we can see what danger they are in, especially under Mayor de Blasio,” she said.
Thousands of police officers from departments around the country were expected to join US Vice-President Joe Biden and city and state officials for Ramos’ funeral service at the church on Saturday.
Nearly 700 officers had taken up an offer JetBlue Airways Corp to fly two members of a law enforcement agency to New York for free to attend, an airline spokeswoman said.
Police had yet to announce details for the funeral of Liu, 32, while federal officials helped some of his relatives in China travel to the United States.
The execution-style killing was so swift, according to the city’s police commissioner, that the officers may never have seen their assailant, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, who soon after shot himself and died in a nearby subway station.
The two officers had been reassigned from another precinct following complaints about violent crime from residents at a housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
Brinsley, who was black, wrote online before traveling from Maryland to New York for the attack that he wanted to kill a couple of police officers to avenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, unarmed black men killed by white policemen in New York and Missouri.
The deaths of Garner and Brown and the decision not to prosecute the officers responsible ignited protests across the country, renewing a debate about race in America that has drawn in US President Barack Obama.
The killing of Ramos and Liu further frayed bonds between many New York police officers and de Blasio as deals with the gravest crisis of his year-old mayoral administration.
Protest leaders expressed horror at the killings, saying they could not be held responsible for the actions of a man described by city officials as emotionally troubled. Brinsley shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore before traveling to Brooklyn.
Relatives of Garner joined civil rights activist the Reverend Al Sharpton on Christmas Day to say prayers for both Ramos and Liu.