A New York City police officer has been placed on administrative duty after he shot and killed an unarmed man in the dark hallway of a Brooklyn public housing development late Thursday night. Law enforcement officials say they believe it was an accident.
The officer and his partner were on a "vertical patrol" and were conducting floor-by-floor sweeps of the Louis Pink Houses about 11:15 p.m. Thursday when they encountered a 28-year-old man in the darkened stairwell of the building.
Officer Peter Liang, who had unholstered his gun and taken out his flashlight in the dark, fired one shot in the dark. The gunshot hit 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the chest, and he fell down the stairs, police said. A woman who was with Gurley performed CPR on him until an ambulance arrived, but he was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
In a press conference, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton called the shooting an "unfortunate tragedy" and said radio transmissions from the scene indicate Liang fired his gun accidentally.
"It appears to be an accidental discharge, with no intention to strike anybody," Bratton told reporters.
He added that while officers are given the discretion to decide whether to draw their gun while patrolling, "an officer would have to justify the circumstances" under which he unholstered his firearm.
Gurley, Bratton said, was a "total innocent" who "was not engaged in any activity other than trying to walk down the stairwell."
Gurley, who Bratton said has a common-law wife and a 2-year-old child, was apparently leaving the building with the woman, who lives on the seventh floor. They had waited for an elevator, but it was taking so long that they decided to walk down the dark stairwell, where the lights were not working, according to Bratton.
No words were exchanged between the officers and Gurley or the woman who was with him before the shot was fired, Bratton said.
Officer Liang has been put on modified duty, and has had his badge and gun taken away, police confirmed. The district attorney's office has initiated an investigation, which is standard procedure in officer-involved shootings, and the NYPD will also conduct an internal review.
Police have informed Gurley's family members, who live in Florida, about his death, which sparked strong condemnations from some New York officials.
Charles Barron, who served on the New York City Council and was recently elected to the state Assembly, told reporters Friday that he didn't believe the shooting was accidental.
"People are outraged, this is happening all over the country, people have no respect for black life," Barron told The New York Times. "I want to hear the justification for this one."
Rep. Hakeen Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who represents Brooklyn, said in a statement that the shooting should "shock the conscience of all New Yorkers and the nation," saying de Blasio and Bratton "must commit to a systematic change in the law enforcement culture of this city."
The city's largest police union, the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Assn., issued a statement Friday, saying poor lighting and "dilapidated conditions" in the housing projects create dangerous conditions for patrol officers and residents. "The Pink Houses are among the most dangerous projects in the city and their stairwells are the most dangerous places in the projects," said Patrick Lynch, president of the union.
Both Liang and his partner, Officer Shaun Landau, were rookie officers who joined the force in July 2013, according to New York Police Department spokeswoman Lt. Karen Anderson. Bratton said both officers were still on probation as new officers, and were assigned to "impact" patrols like the one they were conducting Thursday night.
Bratton said the department was already planning to pair up rookie officers with more experienced ones during probationary periods in the future, but current staffing levels don't allow it.
Bratton said future police academy graduates will also receive general assignments at precincts, rather than assignments like "vertical patrols," but defended the practice as an "essential part of policing."
"The reason we are there is because people in those developments want us there," Bratton said. "We respond to crimes, significant crimes, unfortunately, in those hallways and on those roofs." In the Pink Houses, two robberies and four assaults had occurred over the last month. Two people were killed there this year, he said.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York American Civil Liberties Union, says she doesn't believe the problem is necessarily with the vertical patrols. "The question is not whether there should be vertical patrols," Lieberman told The Times on Friday. "The question is what are the tactics and training police are taught, and I think, in addition to that, is the public housing facility maintained in a way that is conducive to safety?"