This week in history: Off-duty cop kills teen on Upper East Side

Front page of the July 23, 1964 issue of T&V

Front page of the July 23, 1964 issue of T&V

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Town & Village newspaper has been providing news for Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for over 65 years and we’ve decided to start taking a look back to see what was going on in the community 50 years ago. Here is a snapshot from the July 23, 1964 issue of Town & Village.

The headline story in this 1964 issue of T&V was about a Stuyvesant Town resident and police officer who shot and killed a “negro” teen on East 76th Street the previous Thursday, inciting riots in Harlem throughout the week following.

The shooting sparked what is known as the Harlem Riot of 1964. Right after the boy was killed, a small group of students began rioting around the area of the shooting and had to be contained by police. On the same day as his funeral, what started as a peaceful rally on the rising crime rate in Harlem turned into a violent mob that required hundreds of officers at Seventh Avenue and West 125th Street. In total, the incident set off six consecutive nights of rioting throughout Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and is considered the precipitating event for riots later in the summer in cities like Philadelphia, Rochester and Chicago.

Town & Village reported that the victim, 15-year-old James Powell, had attacked the officer, Stuyvesant Town Oval resident Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan, with a switchblade. According to the lieutenant’s version of events, he shot the boy once and when the teen kept advancing, Gilligan shot him a second time, ending his life. T&V withheld the officer’s exact address to prevent possible retaliation or mob violence.

Gilligan had previously shot another menacing teenager three years before, although this victim had survived the gunshot wounds. T&V noted that there were multiple similarities between the two incidents, including that the victims were teenagers and that Gilligan was off-duty and in civilian clothes both times.

The incident that incited the riots began at 9:30 a.m. the previous Thursday, July 16, on East 76th Street between Second and Third Avenues. Powell was on the block because he was attending a voluntary remedial reading class at Robert Wagner JHS. Gilligan was off-duty but nearby because he had brought a small radio to be repaired at a shop near the school.

There were two contrasting versions of the sequence of events that led to the shooting. Both versions point to a disagreement between Patrick Lynch, the building superintendent of 211 and 215 East 76th Street, and a group of teenagers.

T&V reported that Lynch was spraying the sidewalk in front of one of the buildings before the argument started. According to Lynch’s version of the story, he told police that he had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a group of teenagers, including Powell, to move away from the building. When they refused, he said that he started watering flowers in a second floor window box and speculated that “maybe a few drops hit them.”

Witnesses had a different account for how the incident started, reporting that Lynch turned the hose on Powell and the other teenagers, saying, “dirty n—–s, I’ll wash the black off you.” The teens said that he then barricaded himself in the building and called police after they starting chasing after him.

Lieutenant Gilligan was in the nearby repair shop when he heard the commotion and reportedly saw Powell banging on the door of the building with a garbage can lid. After Gilligan identified himself as a police officer with his shield, Powell reportedly came after him with a knife and Gilligan shot the boy in self defense, he said.

Teen witnesses told the police, however, that Powell went into the hallway of the building while chasing after Lynch but that he didn’t have a knife on him and while one was found at the scene, it was eight feet from the boy’s body in a gutter. On the other hand, one of Powell’s friends admitted that the teen had given him a knife to hold at the beginning of the day and when the fight with the superintendent started, Powell asked for the knife back and the boy said that he returned it.

The Medical Examiner reported that the 5’6”, 122-pound teen was struck by one bullet in his right arm, which entered his chest, and another bullet that pierced his stomach and emerged from his back.

In September of that year, Lieutenant Gilligan was cleared of any wrongdoing and he always maintained that Powell had lunged at him with a knife.

The anniversary of Powell’s death is particularly significant in light of recent events, specifically the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died last Thursday after he was put into a chokehold by a police officer.

Like the Powell case, there are different accounts of what happened when Garner was arrested. The Staten Island Advance reported that witnesses saw Garner trying to break up a fight and cops approached him, putting him in a chokehold.

On the other hand, police sources said that the officers were trying to arrest Garner because he was selling untaxed cigarettes and that he resisted arrest. In video obtained by the Daily News, Garner could be heard saying that he couldn’t breathe.

The two deaths happened 50 years apart, almost to the day: Powell was killed on July 16, 1964 and Garner died on July 17, 2014.

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