On the night of November 20th, Peter Liang, an NYPD officer, shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old black man, in an unlighted stairwell at the Louis H. Pink Houses, a NYCHA project in East New York. Reports on the shooting quickly settled on a consistent sequence of events: Officer Liang and his partner had entered the stairwell on the eighth-floor, on a routine patrol of housing project stairwells. Liang had his 9-mm semiautomatic drawn—also, reportedly, a common maneuver. Gurley and his girlfriend, tired of waiting for the elevator on the seventh-floor, had entered the stairwell and were walking upstairs to their apartment. The lights in the stairwell did not work, although the building’s superintended had reportedly asked NYCHA to repair them months ago. Officer Liang attempted to open a door with the same hand in which he held his gun. In doing so, he accidentally discharged the weapon. The bullet ricocheted off a wall, striking Gurley in the chest. Gurley had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton later said. Officer Liang was reportedly a “crying mess.”
A lot of questions quickly emerged about how the two officers handled the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and whether or not they should have been in the stairwell in the first place. A damning report from the Daily News today indicates that the inexperienced officers, possibly panicked, committed major errors in protocol and suffered lapses in judgment.
It had previously been reported that if took the officers five minutes to call in the shooting. Today, sources told the Daily News that Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, could not be reached by their commanding officer nor an emergency operator, who both attempted to contact them after a Pink Houses resident called 911 reporting the gunshot. Sources also confirmed that Liang was texting his union representative within minutes of the accidental shooting.
Furthermore, Deputy Inspector Miguel Iglesias, the head officer of the local housing command, had reportedly ordered his officers not to conduct stairway inspections—known as “verticals”—at the Pink Houses, in response to a spate of violence at the project. The officers were supposed to be patrolling exteriors only. Liang has been on the force since last summer, and remains a probationary cop.
Gurley’s death is a tragedy, all the more so for being completely accidental. It’s easy to imagine any number of minor decisions that, had they been made, would have led to a different result. If the elevator had arrived in a timely fashion; if the lights in the stairwell had been changed; if Liang, like his partner, had kept his gun holstered; if he’d put the safety on; if the two officers had obeyed their commanding officer and stayed out of the stairwell.
While the shooting may have been accidental, the confluence of factors that enabled it is not. The roots of Gurley’s death go all the way back to discriminatory housing policies founded on historical prejudices. That fact, at the very least, explains why the light fixtures were in disrepair, and why Officer Liang felt the need to patrol the hallways and stairwells of the Pink Houses like it was a war zone. “As we continue to gather the facts, the fatal shooting of this unarmed man is deeply troubling and warrants an immediate, fair and thorough investigation,” said Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson.
The case will likely be presented to a grand jury; whether or not there’s an indictment is obviously an open question. The Times points out that a similar shooting occurred in January 2004, when Officer Richard S. Neri Jr. killed Timothy Stansbury Jr. on a roof at the Louis Armstrong Houses. “A grand jury declined to indict Officer Neri after he gave emotional testimony that he had unintentionally fired; he was startled, he said, when Mr. Stansbury pushed open a rooftop door in a place where drug dealing was rampant.”