City Councilman James Davis of Brooklyn was fatally shot this afternoon in an attack inside the Council chambers at City Hall by a political rival who had accompanied the councilman into the building. The gunman, who was shot by a police officer following the attack, later died.
The assailant, identified as 31-year-old Othniel Askew, had intended to file papers to run against Davis for his Council seat in the upcoming election, sources said. In a late afternoon press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Askew had entered City Hall with Davis, and that both men bypassed the building’s metal detector.
Witnesses say Askew opened fire from the second floor balcony of the City Council shortly after 2 p.m. during a routine hearing. Davis was struck twice in the chest, and later died at Beekman Downtown Hospital.
Witnesses say a plainclothes police officer assigned to City Council Speaker Gifford Miller returned fire at Askew, but other sources say Askew may have turned his gun on himself.
"Askew suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Whether or not some of those wounds were self-inflicted is to be determined," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Askew was taken to New York University Downtown Medical Center, where he later died.
Several sources say that Davis and Askew had recently reconciled their differences, and that the two men had begun the day at Davis' Brooklyn office before going to City Hall together. Video cameras at City Hall recorded images of the two men speaking to each other as they entered the building.
Councilman Charles Barron said that prior to the hearing, Davis had introduced Askew to several colleagues as a former opponent who was now working with him.
"This is the guy who was once against me, but now he's with me," Barron quoted Davis as saying.
Councilman Kendall Stewart also said he had spoken with Askew before the shooting: "We had just had the conversation that he had made peace with his opponent and that he would be working with him."
However, an FBI official tells NY1 that Askew had filed a complaint against David with the bureau. According to the FBI, a man identifying himself as Askew phoned the New York City FBI office late this morning to report that Davis had been harassing him in connection with the upcoming primary election. Askew made no threats of violence against the councilman.
The FBI official says that the information was forwarded to the bureau's Public Corruption Unit, and was later passed on to the New York Police Department after news of the shooting broke.
At the time of the attack, the mayor was in City Hall but was not near the Council chambers and was unharmed.
"I don't think I've ever had as tough a day in 61 years as today," Bloomberg said at an early evening press conference. "Somebody who is an elected official of the City of New York has been killed, and they've been killed right here in City Hall."
According to NY1 reporter Michael Scotto, who was in City Hall’s Blue Room at the time of the shooting, up to 12 shots were heard coming from the second floor of the building around 2:00 this afternoon.
“I looked up at the balcony and I saw an individual walk across the balcony with a gun and he was pointing at something in the balcony and started to fire. At that point, everyone started to realize what was going on,” Councilman Tony Avella told NY1 in a phone interview. "I did see him walk across with the gun pointed. I did not hear him say anything. The shots rang out across the chamber so loud, you could not hear anything but that. He did manage to get off a number of shots. Quite a large number, I thought."
"It was a feeling of helplessness,” said Councilman Hiram Monserrate. “It sounded like at least 10 shots. Those few seconds felt like a half an hour, and the expression on my colleague's faces, it just told the story. We were all pretty shaken up."
City Hall was immediately evacuated, police secured the area outside the building, and the NYPD initialized a Level One mobilization, which is normally reserved for a terrorist attack. City officials had originally said the gunman was still at large, prompting a manhunt both inside City Hall and in the surrounding area.
“This is a terrible attack, not just on two people — and they are in our prayers — but this is an attack on democracy,” Bloomberg said during a mid-afternoon press conference. “We will not stop until we find who did this. It is not terrorism; it appears to be random act. But we cannot allow this to go on — ever. This is an attack on all Americans.”
Bloomberg said that effective immediately, all officials, including the mayor, must now go through metal detectors at City Hall.
According to Metro Traffic, Chambers Street has been shut down eastbound at Church Street, and only one lane on Broadway is open south of Duane Street.
According to the Transit Authority, 4, 5 and 6 trains are bypassing the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station; N and R and trains are bypassing the City Hall station; and A, C and J trains are bypassing the Chambers Street station.
All buses are said to be running normally.
Davis, a 41-year-old former police officer, represented the 35th Council District in Brooklyn. He was also the founder of "Love Yourself: Stop the Violence,” a not-for-profit, voluntarily run organization dedicated to stopping violence in urban America.
NY1 Profile: Davis Was Outspoken Against Urban Violence