A probationary NYPD officer is being placed on modified duty after he apparently accidentally shot and killed an unarmed 28-year-old man in a dimly lit stairwell while on foot patrol at a Brooklyn housing project late Thursday, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said Friday.
The officer, Peter Liang, and another officer, both with less than 18 months on the force, were part of a violence reduction overtime detail on vertical patrol, which is when police conduct floor-by-floor sweeps of a building, at the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York around 11 p.m.
They had gone to the eighth floor, the top floor, via elevator to check the roof when they noticed that there were no lights in the stairwell leading to the roof, Bratton said. Given the location and lack of light, Liang drew his weapon and a flashlight for safety reasons, Bratton said. The other officer kept his service weapon holstered.
As the officers were entering the eighth-floor landing, Akai Gurley emerged on the seventh-floor landing. He heard a noise and turned square to look up at the two officers a floor above him, a law enforcement source said. That's when Liang, who had his gun in his left hand and his flashlight in his right, fired accidentally, hitting Gurley 11 feet below him.
Bratton said no words were exchanged.
"All indications are this was an accidental discharge," Bratton said, calling the shooting "an unfortunate tragedy."
Bratton said Gurley and his girlfriend apparently had opted to take the stairs because they didn't want to wait for the elevator, and law enforcement officials say the girlfriend was a flight of stairs or so ahead of him at the time of the shooting. She didn't see the officer's gun fire.
Gurley stumbled down to his girlfriend on the fifth floor after being shot, and she ran to a fourth-floor apartment to ask for help and called 911, a law enforcement source said. She was given a towel to put pressure on Gurley's chest as she waited for paramedics to arrive.
Liang and the other officer, who initially walked out of the staircase onto the eighth floor, soon realized someone had been shot, and went down to the fifth floor to attempt to render aid, the source said.
Gurley was pronounced dead at a hospital. Gurley, who has multiple previous arrests on robbery and other charges, was not armed when he was shot, authorities said. He lives in Red Hook and has a 2-year-old daughter, though it's not clear where the child lives. Gurley's mother lives in Florida.
Mayor de Blasio called his death a "tragic mistake."
The Brooklyn district attorney's office and the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau are investigating. The New York City Housing Authority said it was cooperating.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson called the shooting "deeply troubling."
"Many questions must be answered, including whether, as reported, the lights in the hallway were out for a number of days, and how this tragedy actually occurred," Thompson said in a statement.
Authorities have interviewed the second officer and Gurley's girlfriend, but have not yet spoken to Liang. The district attorney's office will determine whether it will file criminal charges after interviewing Liang. Then internal affairs officers can question him, a standard policy.
Both officers were taken to the hospital for ringing in their ears, according to the NYPD. The housing project they were assigned to patrol has seen several serious crimes over the last month, including two robberies and two assaults. Two people were killed there this year, Bratton said.
Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the Pink Houses are among the city's most dangerous 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," Lynch said. "Only time and a thorough investigation will tell us what transpired in this case."
Community leaders blasted the NYPD and called for immediate reform.
"We should not have rookies, inexperienced police officers who are frightened of us, doing vertical patrols," said former councilman and incoming assemblyman Charles Barron.
Councilman Jumaane Williams called the shooting an example of a "an overly zealous ethos for excessive force" within the NYPD.
He added in a statement: "Why were two probationary officers put on patrol in a 'high crime' area with no veteran officer to assist? Why was the officer's gun drawn with no safety before entering a vertical patrol? And most importantly, why is another unarmed black man dead at the hands of a police officer?"
Neighbors echoed the concerns during a candlelight vigil held for Gurley Friday night, chanting "Bratton must go."
Seventh-floor resident Dashwan Lopez said the lights in the hallway had been out for days before they were finally repaired Friday, prompting questions over whether Liang would have even drawn his gun if the lights had been on.
In Lopez's mind, "it could be better managed by housing, but it's still not an excuse to discharge your weapon without knowing what's going on," he said.
The shooting comes as the department is changing how rookie cops are used fresh out of the academy to give them more training and time with more senior officers.
Bratton is implementing a program that pairs less experienced officers with veteran officers on vertical and other patrol, but the program has had to be a roll-out process rather than an immediate overhaul due to staffing constraints, law enforcement officials said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton is planning a community protest alongside Gurley's family on Saturday. Sharpton runs the National Action Network and is a talk-show host on MSNBC, which is owned by WNBC's parent company, NBCUniversal.
Lori Bordonaro and Brynn Gingras contributed to this report.