The rookie NYPD officer who fired into a darkened stairwell at a Brooklyn housing complex and accidentally killed Akai Gurley pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, official misconduct and other charges Wednesday, a day after being indicted in the death of the 28-year-old unarmed man.
Officer Peter Liang was released without bail Wednesday after an arraignment hearing. He also faces charges of criminally negligent homicide, assault and reckless endangerment, according to the indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Several of Gurley's family members shouted during Liang's hearing. His aunt cried, "He murdered my nephew," and one relative yelled, "The whole damn system is guilty as hell." Outside the courthouse, protesters chanted and waved signs calling for justice. Some read, "Black Lives Matter."
Liang is next due in court May 14.
Pat Lynch, head of Liang's union, said the officer, who has less than two years on the job, deserves due process.
"The fact that he was assigned to patrol one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident," Lynch said.
The case was closely watched following the mass protests and calls for reform of the grand jury system nationwide after a Staten Island grand jury's refusal to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, and a Missouri grand jury's decision not to indict an officer in the death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Scott Rynecki, an attorney representing Gurley's family, said the shooting was unjustified, regardless of intent. Gurley's domestic partner and mother of his toddler daughter filed a notice of claim that she was planning to sue the city in his death.
"This is the first step for justice," Rynecki said.
Liang and his partner were patrolling the Louis Pink Houses, a public housing development in Brooklyn's gritty East New York neighborhood, on Nov. 20. The New York Police Department assigns rookie officers as reinforcements in parts of the city that have seen increases in crime. The housing project, where Gurley was getting his hair braided by a friend, had been the scene of a recent shooting, robberies and assaults.
The officers had descended onto an eighth-floor landing when, 14 steps away, Gurley and the woman opened a door into the seventh-floor landing after giving up their wait for the elevator so he could head to the lobby. The lights were burned out in the stairwell, leaving it "pitch black" and prompting both officers to use flashlights, police said after the shooting.
Liang, 27, possibly concerned about the dark stairwell in an area where several high-profile crimes had happened, also had his gun drawn, police have said. He was about 10 feet from Gurley when, without a word and apparently by accident, he fired a shot, police said.
Gurley was struck in the chest. He made it down two flights of stairs after he was shot, but collapsed on the fifth-floor landing and lost consciousness, according to the woman, described as a both a friend and a girlfriend. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died, police said.
Police officials pieced together the details of the shooting from radio reports and interviews with the woman and the second officer, but they have not spoken to Liang and won't until after the criminal proceedings are completed. Liang was placed on desk duty after the shooting and may be suspended without pay.
The indictment comes at a time of uneasy peace between the nation's largest police force and Mayor de Blasio's City Hall. A rift widened between the police and the mayor after the Garner grand jury's decision when the police unions expressed outrage that de Blasio spoke of warning his own son, who is biracial, to be wary when dealing with police.
And when two officers were killed in an ambush weeks later, the police union leaders blamed de Blasio for fostering an anti-police atmosphere that they believed contributed to the slayings. Hundreds of officers repeatedly turned their backs on the mayor — including at the cops' funerals — and participated in a work slowdown.
Tensions have eased somewhat in recent weeks, and de Blasio released a carefully worded statement late Tuesday after Liang's indictment.
"This case is an unspeakable tragedy for the Gurley family," the mayor said. "We urge everyone to respect the judicial process as it unfolds."