Originally published on November 23, 2014, at NationofChange.org
While routinely patrolling a Brooklyn housing project on Thursday night, an NYPD officer shot and killed an unarmed man who police admit had not been engaging in any criminal activity. The officer involved in the shooting claims he accidentally discharged his weapon, but city officials believe the officer’s inexperience and cowardice caused the innocent man’s death.
After hanging out at his girlfriend’s apartment on the seventh floor of the Louis H. Pink housing project in Brooklyn, Akai Gurley and his girlfriend Melissa Butler attempted to take the elevator downstairs around 11:15pm on Thursday. Tired of waiting for the elevator, Gurley and Butler chose to take the stairs down instead. Butler entered the dimly lit stairwell and began descending the steps as Gurley followed her.
On the floor above them, NYPD officers Peter Liang and Shaun Landau were conducting a routine vertical patrol of the building. As Officer Liang entered the stairwell from the eighth floor with his flashlight and gun drawn, he fired a single shot striking Gurley in the chest. Gurley managed to stagger down to the fifth floor where he collapsed.
“They didn’t identify themselves,” recalled Butler. “No nothing. They didn’t give no explanation. They just pulled a gun and shot him in the chest.”
With her boyfriend lying in a pool of blood in the stairwell, Butler ran to a fourth-floor apartment to ask for help and called 911. A woman gave her a towel to put pressure on Gurley’s chest as the 911 operator instructed Butler to administer first aid until the paramedics arrived. According to Butler, the NYPD officers never came downstairs to check on Gurley.
Instead of immediately reporting the shooting, the officers waited a full five minutes before contacting anyone. According to the police, Liang was sitting on the floor crying for 45 minutes. Paramedics initially responded to Butler’s 911 call for help. Gurley was transported to Brookdale Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Officers Liang and Landau were taken to a separate hospital for treatment of tinnitus.
“I shot him accidentally,” Liang told colleagues afterward.
After taking the elevator to the roof, officers Liang and Landau conducted floor-by-floor sweeps of the building commonly referred to as “vertical patrols” by the NYPD. According to the police, Liang held a flashlight in his right hand and his Glock .9mm pistol in his left hand when he opened the door accessing the stairwell from the eighth floor. Police officials claim Liang opened the door with the same hand holding the gun and accidentally fired a shot that ricocheted off the wall and into Gurley’s chest.
According to NYPD spokeswoman Lt. Karen Anderson, both Liang and Landau are probationary officers who joined the force in July 2013. Police Commissioner William Bratton stated the department had planned on pairing rookie officers with more experienced cops during probationary periods, but current staffing levels could not allow it.
Referring to Gurley as a “total innocent,” Bratton admitted after a preliminary investigation that Gurley “was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type.” When asked if Liang’s decision to brandish his firearm with the safety off was standard protocol, Bratton responded, “There’s not a specific prohibition against taking a firearm out.”
Bratton added, “As in all cases, an officer would have to justify the circumstances that required him to or resulted in his unholstering his firearm.”
As a grand jury determines whether NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo should face charges for placing Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold resulting in the unarmed man’s death, Gurley joins the list of unarmed black men killed by police in recent months. Along with Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, and Michael Brown, Gurley has become yet another example of excessive force and police brutality.
“We should not have rookies, inexperienced police officers who are frightened of us, doing vertical patrols,” said former councilman and incoming assemblyman Charles Barron.
In a statement, Councilman Jumaane Williams asked, “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?”
Stripped of his gun and badge, Liang has been placed on administrative duty.