NEW YORK — Prosecutors should charge a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man in a dark public housing stairwell, elected officials said Nov. 24 after the medical examiner announced that the death was ruled a homicide.
City Councilwoman Inez Barron and Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron met with officials in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Afterward, Charles Barron told reporters he thought the shooting of Akai Gurley last week warrants a criminal charge for Officer Peter Liang.
He said Liang’s use of a police weapon “was reckless endangerment, it was criminally negligent homicide.”
Whether charges are filed would be up to Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who has called the shooting “deeply troubling” and said it warrants “an immediate, fair and thorough investigation.” His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In ruling the death a homicide, the city’s Medical Examiner’s office said its finding that Gurley’s death “resulted in full or in part from the actions of another person or persons,” a gunshot wound to the torso, “does not imply any statement about intent or culpability.”
“… The evaluation of the legal implications of this classification is a function of the district attorney and the criminal justice system,” the medical examiner said in a statement.
Liang and his partner, both rookie officers, were patrolling a pitch-dark stairwell with flashlights late Nov. 20 when Gurley was shot, police said.
Police said the officers walked down the stairs onto an eighth-floor landing. Gurley and his girlfriend opened a stairwell door one floor down after giving up on waiting for an elevator.
Police said Liang, patrolling with his gun drawn, fired without a word and apparently by accident, hitting Gurley from a distance of about 10 feet.
Charles Barron said the officers were “well trained” to keep their gun in their holster when there was no apparent danger. “When you pull your gun out and there’s no danger, then you have violated (New York Police Department) policy. And if you discharge that weapon, you did it deliberately because you were scared.”
Instead, he said, the officer should have pulled out only his flashlight and spoken to Gurley and his girlfriend.
In addition, he said another NYPD policy was violated when the two rookies were sent out on patrol, instead of an experienced officer who could guide a rookie.
Police Commissioner William Bratton previously called the shooting in Brooklyn’s gritty East New York neighborhood an apparent accident that claimed a “totally innocent” life.
Several hours after the news conference in front of the district attorney’s office, a group of about a dozen protesters calling for Bratton’s dismissal showed up at the New York University Law School where the Commissioner was to speak about urban crime.
A few minutes into his speech, they stood up, turned their backs to Bratton, and chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Bratton must go!” The Commissioner dismissed them, saying, “That’s the entertainment for the evening.”
After the event, Bratton told reporters he didn’t pay attention to anything Charles Barron said, calling the outspoken former City Council member an “incendiary device.”
Gurley’s death comes at a sensitive time in New York. On Staten Island, a grand jury is weighing whether to bring criminal charges against another officer in a chokehold death.
City police often conduct “vertical patrols” inside public housing by going from roofs down staircases that sometimes are havens for crime. Bratton has said the patrols are needed, and the development where Gurley was shot had recently seen a shooting, robberies and assaults.
Liang, 26, has been placed on modified duty. Under standard policy, police internal affairs investigators won’t be able to question him until prosecutors have decided whether to file criminal charges.
Mayor Bill de Blasio met with some of Gurley’s relatives Nov. 21. His office declined to comment on the Medical Examiner’s findings.