I-Team: Darkened Stairwell Not the Only Problem at Police Shooting Building

Lighting problems at the Pink Houses in Brooklyn made headlines after police shot an innocent, unarmed man in a dark stairwell. But long before police said Akai Gurley was accidentally killed by a rookie cop, federal regulators knew about severe repair problems at the public housing complex.

A federal Housing and Urban Development report, obtained by the I-Team through a Freedom of Information Request, shows the Pink Houses are among the city's worst kept public housing facilities. In 2013, the collection of East New York buildings scored 62 out of 100 points on its inspection. That is worse than about 90 percent of all New York City Housing Authority facilities inspected by HUD between May of 2012 and January of 2014.

According to the HUD data, which includes scores for 159 New York City Housing Authority facilities, the average public housing facility scored 75 in the most recent round of federal inspections. Of those 159 scores, only fifteen were lower than 62.

During their examination of the Pink Houses, federal inspectors examined 24 residential buildings and 27 units inside those buildings. Based on that sample, they projected more than 1,300 health and safety deficiencies, including one “life-threatening” deficiency.

The federal inspectors also classified some deficiencies as “systemic,” including broken refrigerators, broken glass in stairwell doors, insect and roach infestations, mold and/or mildew and peeling paint.

Naomi Butler, the mother of Gurley’s former girlfriend, has complained for months about security in the building, especially as it pertains to door locks and the intercom. Butler, who lives just a few yards away from the stairwell where Gurley was killed, said her front doorknob had been broken for months, and even after a NYCHA repair worker came to fix the problem, it persisted.

When the I-Team visited her, she did not hear the intercom ring.

"You don't hear nothing because they don't fix the intercom,” she said. “You don't hear it!"

It was on Nov. 20 that rookie NYPD officer Peter Liang fired his service weapon, killing Gurley, 28, in “stairwell A” near Butler’s apartment. The Brooklyn district attorney has convened a grand jury to determine if criminal charges should be filed against Liang.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has said the shooting of Gurley was an accidental discharge of a police officer’s weapon in a “dimly lit” space.

It is not clear why the officer had his gun drawn in the stairwell, but Bratton said officers have discretion as to when they should unholster their guns depending upon “what they are encountering or believe they may encounter.” Several serious crimes had been reported at the Pink Houses earlier in the year, Bratton said previously, and he may have been concerned by the lack of light. 

City Council Member Ritchie Torres, (D- Tremont), who chairs the Public Housing Committee, is scheduled to hold a hearing to ask NYCHA brass why lights were dark in the stairwell.

"The conditions in Pink Houses seem to be worse than the conditions elsewhere,” Torres said. “But I've heard complaints about poor lighting throughout the public housing stock and for me it's about dis-investments. The lack of resources that are going into our public housing developments."

Torres wrote a letter three weeks ago to NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye, demanding records of lighting complaints at Pink Houses. The I-Team asked for the same records.  NYCHA has yet to produce them.

"We're expecting answers to those questions on Tuesday. And we're going to stop at nothing to get answers to those questions," Torres said.

According to the housing authority "metrics" webpage, the agency is making progress on lighting problems. The website says repair requests for "public space light" are addressed within 15 days. That compared to a 21-day response time last year. But the agency says there is a larger budget problem and $1 billion in capital investments will be needed for major exterior and interior lighting upgrades at public housing complexes city-wide.

NYCHA General Manager Cecil House said he is not satisfied with the rate of fixing broken lights in the public housing system, but stressed federal aid to the agency has been cut back over the last several years.

"Our staff are stretched. I mean, we have not been fully funded by the federal government in years. And that presents staffing and operational challenges for us," House said.

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