Following Death of Unarmed Black Man by Police, NYC Officials Call for Investigation

November 23, 2014 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW YORK—Following the fatal shooting of Brooklyn man Akai Gurley by a police officer at a public housing project in East New York, federal and city elected officials on Sunday called for improvements to public housing conditions and police department protocol.

Late Thursday evening, Gurley, 28, and his girlfriend entered a darkened stairway inside a building of the Louis H. Pink Houses. At the same time, two rookie police officers were conducting a regular patrol of the stairwells, using flashlights.

As one of the officers, Peter Liang, entered the floor landing above Gurley and descended the stairs with his gun drawn, Liang apparently fired his weapon by accident, striking Gurley once in the chest, according to police.

At a press conference on Friday, NYPD commissioner William Bratton said Gurley was “a total innocent” who was unarmed. He added that based on police radio and submitted statements, officer Liang did not have an intention to strike anyone.

Gurley was transported to the Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

On Sunday, local Congress representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Nydia Velazquez, and New York City public advocate Letitia James met with the Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson, who will decide whether to press criminal charges on officer Liang.

Police Practices

At a press conference outside the district attorney’s office following their 30-minute meeting, Jeffries said he relayed community concerns over the poor infrastructure conditions inside public housing, as well as the fact that “an innocent, unarmed, African-American man in the city of New York has once again been killed by a police bullet.”

He and the others called on the police department to re-evaluate its practice of having newly trained officers patrol public housing projects. Public advocate James recommended that a senior level officer be required to accompany rookie officers.

While the officials were wary of calling the incident a case of racial profiling before the district attorney releases the results of his investigation, Jeffries said many in his representative district feel that the police department’s “broken windows” policing of low-level, nuisance crimes disproportionately affect people of color, and “can create a climate where a rookie police officer believes that any young, African American male that he confronts presents a danger.”

The officials said they have confidence that the district attorney will conduct a swift and thorough investigation, and plan to accept the prosecutor’s final conclusions. They also announced that Gurley’s case has been assigned to the district attorney’s civil rights unit.
At the Friday press conference on the shooting, Bratton noted that it was up to the officer’s discretion whether to draw his weapon during patrol. “There’s not a specific prohibition against taking a firearm out,” Bratton said, but officers who unholster their weapons will have to justify why they felt they needed to.

Patrick Lynch, president of the city’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the Pink Houses were among the city’s most dangerous housing projects: “Dimly lit stairways and dilapidated conditions create fertile ground for violent crime while the constant presence of illegal firearms creates a dangerous and highly volatile environment for police officers and residents alike. Only time and a thorough investigation will tell us what transpired in this case.”

Past Police Killings

Gurley’s death comes at a time of much tension between police and local communities. In July, Staten Island man Eric Garner died after a police officer placed him in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. His death fueled protests against police brutality, including one in August that drew thousands.

In Ferguson, Mo., locals are still awaiting a grand jury decision on whether to indict the police officer who fatally shot an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown.

Public advocate James urged New Yorkers to stay calm in the aftermath of Gurley’s death. “This is not Ferguson, Mo.,” she said.
The police department is currently conducting an internal investigation, and Liang has been placed on modified duty with his gun and badge stripped.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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