A rookie police officer who fired into a darkened stairwell at a Brooklyn public housing complex, accidentally killing a man who had been waiting for an elevator, has been indicted in his death, a lawyer said Tuesday.
Officer Peter Liang will appear in court Wednesday in the November shooting death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, according to Scott Rynecki, an attorney representing Gurley's family. Grand jury proceedings are secret. It wasn't clear what charges were considered; they could range from misdemeanor official misconduct to manslaughter, a felony.
Patrick J. Lynch, head of Liang's police union, said he deserves due process.
"The fact that he was assigned to patrol one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident," Lynch said.
The indictment follows mass protests and calls for reform of the grand jury system nationwide after a Staten Island grand jury's refusal to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man, and a Missouri grand jury's decision not to indict a white officer in the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old.
Gurley was black. Liang is Asian-American.
Rynecki said the shooting was unjustified, regardless of whether it was intentional.
"This is the first step for justice," he said.
Liang and his partner were patrolling the Louis Pink Houses, a public housing development in Brooklyn's gritty East New York neighborhood, on Nov. 20. The New York Police Department assigns rookie officers as reinforcements in parts of the city that have seen increases in crime. The housing project, where Gurley's friend lives, had been the scene of a recent shooting, robberies and assaults.
The officers had descended onto an eighth-floor landing when, 14 steps away, Gurley and the woman who had been braiding his hair 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, police said after the shooting.
Liang, 27, for reasons unclear, also had his gun drawn, police said. He was about 10 feet from Gurley when, without a word and apparently by accident, he fired a shot, police said. He has been on the job for less than two years, including time spent in the police academy.
Gurley was struck in the chest. The two made it down two flights of stairs after he was shot, but he collapsed on the fifth-floor landing and lost consciousness, according to the woman, described as both a friend and a girlfriend. He was taken to a hospital, where he died, police said. Police officials pieced together the details of the shooting from radio reports and interviews with the woman and the second officer, but they have not spoken to Liang and won't until after the criminal proceedings are completed. Liang was placed on desk duty after the shooting. He will be suspended without pay after the charges are unsealed.
The indictment comes at a time of uneasy peace between the nation's largest police force and Mayor Bill de Blasio's City Hall. A rift widened between the police and the mayor after the Garner grand jury's decision when the police unions expressed outraged that de Blasio spoke of warning his own son, who is biracial, to be wary when dealing with police.
And when two officers were killed in an ambush weeks later, the police union leaders blamed de Blasio for fostering an anti-police atmosphere that they believed contributed to the slayings. Hundreds of officers repeatedly turned their backs on the mayor — including at the cops' funerals — and participated in a work slowdown.
Tensions have eased somewhat in recent weeks, and de Blasio released a carefully worded statement late Tuesday after Liang's indictment.
"No matter the specific charges, this case is an unspeakable tragedy for the Gurley family," the mayor said. "We urge everyone to respect the judicial process as it unfolds."
The last officer to be indicted in New York was Richard Haste, who was indicted on a manslaughter charge in the death of Ramarley Graham on Feb. 2, 2012, in the Bronx after a suspected drug bust gone awry. The case was tossed on a technicality, and another grand jury declined to indict the officer.