NYC pays victim's family $4.1 million in police stairwell shooting

The family of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man fatally shot by a police officer in November 2014, agreed to settle a wrongful death lawsuit with New York City.

Craig Ruttle/AP
Protesters attend a rally in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Feb. 20, in support of a former NYPD police officer Peter Liang, who was convicted of manslaughter for the 2014 shooting death of Akai Gurley, in a housing project stairwell.

New York City has reached a settlement of more than $4 million with the family of an unarmed man fatally shot by a police officer in a darkened stairwell in November 2014, the attorney for the family said Tuesday.

The city is paying $4.1 million and the New York City Housing Authority is contributing $400,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of 28-year-old Akai Gurley.

The city's Law Department called the settlement a "fair resolution of a tragic matter."

Former Officer Peter Liang was on patrol when he opened a stairwell door at a public housing building and suddenly fired. The bullet ricocheted and hit Gurley. Liang will pay $25,000 to Kim Ballinger, the mother of Gurley's daughter as part of the settlement.

Liang was sentenced to five years' probation and 800 hours of community service; he later apologized to Gurley's family.

Family attorney Scott Rynecki said the parties reached the settlement "after extensive negotiations guided by Supreme Court Justice Dawn Jimenez-Salta."

"I'm glad it's all done. I'm pleased with the outcome," Ballinger told the Daily News.

The case became a flashpoint for police accountability. The shooting came just months after the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York prompted protests and a nationwide discussion of police killings.

Liang's supporters said he has been made a scapegoat for past injustices. More than 10,000 of his backers rallied in New York and across the U.S. after the verdict, protesting his conviction.

Liang was a rookie patrolling a pitch-dark stairwell with his gun drawn while Gurley headed down to the lobby because the elevator was out of order. Liang said he was startled by a noise, fired accidentally and didn't immediately realize his bullet had hit someone.

A jury convicted him of manslaughter, but Brooklyn state Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun said prosecutors hadn't proven key elements of that charge and reduced it to criminally negligent homicide, a lowest-level felony. He said there was no need for prison "to have a just sentence in this case."

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, critics of Liang’s actions and the ongoing use of deadly force say the former officer got off lightly at the time of his sentencing.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill said the sentencing sends “a deeply troubling message that police officers convicted of killing unarmed African Americans will be held to a different, and more lenient, standard of justice than everyone else involved in the criminal justice system.”

“The justice system doesn't work for all communities,” Daniel Sanchez, who demonstrated outside the Brooklyn courthouse during the trial, told AP.

But to Liang's supporters, the incident was simply an accident that was used as a scapegoat for other high-profile officer-involved shootings.

“We still feel this was a politically motivated prosecution,” demonstrator Karlin Chan told AP, while acknowledging that “Nobody really won here.”

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