NEW YORK — The distraught family of an unarmed New York City man who was killed by a rookie police officer in the darkened stairwell of a public housing building was scheduled to appear with the Rev. Al Sharpton on Nov. 22 to seek answers in what’s been described as an apparently accidental shooting.
Akai Gurley’s sister, Akisha Pringle, and Kimberly Michelle Ballinger, his domestic partner and the mother of his daughter, were to join the veteran civil rights leader for a rally at the National Action Network’s Harlem headquarters, where Sharpton will ask prosecutors in Brooklyn to investigate the Nov. 20 shooting, a spokeswoman for the group announced.
“Things are a little tense right now as you can imagine,” Kirsten Foy, an official with Sharpton’s group, told reporters. He said Ballinger was consulting a psychologist to help explain Gurley’s death to his 2-year-old daughter, which was “a very difficult thing to have to explain to a child when you’ve always taught them that the police were there to be our friends and to protect us.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, calling Gurley’s death a “tragedy,” met with some of his relatives. Police Commissioner William Bratton similarly described the shooting as a tragedy and said the 28-year-old man was “totally innocent” and wasn’t engaged in criminal activity when the officer fired his weapon.
Why exactly Officer Peter Liang had his gun drawn and fired while patrolling the Louis Pink Houses in Brooklyn’s gritty East New York neighborhood with his partner wasn’t immediately clear, but authorities have indicated it appeared to be an accidental shooting.
Liang, 26, was placed on modified duty. He must first be interviewed by the district attorney’s office, which will decide whether to file criminal charges, before internal affairs officers can question him, a standard policy.
Police say the officers had descended onto an eighth-floor landing when, 14 steps away, Gurley and a girlfriend had 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, Bratton said.
Liang was about 10 feet from Gurley when, without a word and apparently by accident, he fired a shot, police said. In general, officers have discretion on whether to draw their weapons based on what they are encountering or believe they may encounter, Bratton said.
Gurley and the girlfriend, Melissa Butler, made it down two flights of stairs after he was shot, but he collapsed on the fifth-floor landing and lost consciousness, she told the Daily News.
Gurley was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died. Gurley’s stepfather, Kenneth Palmer, said officials called his relatives in Jacksonville, Florida, to notify them of the death. “He was a peacemaker,” he said.
By Tom Hays and Colleen Long. AP writers Karen Matthews and Jonathan Lemire and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report