NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — An unarmed and unsuspecting man was shot in the chest and killed by a rookie police officer in the inside stairwell of a Brooklyn housing complex late Thursday, and police officials have said it appeared to be accidental.
As CBS2’s Jessica Schneider reported, police sources told CBS2 that Officer Peter Liang was trying to open a door while holding a gun, and the gun went off accidentally.
But some critics doubt the claims, and a group that included state Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) called for NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to step down Friday night, CBS2’s Weijia Jiang reported.
“Bratton must go! Bratton must go!” the group chanted at the Louis Pink Houses public housing development in East New York, Brooklyn, where the shooting occurred.
“You think Ferguson was bad, you keep killing us here in New York and getting away with it, you haven’t seen anything yet,” Assemblyman-elect Barron said.
The incident happened around 11:15 p.m. Thursday as two officers were patrolling inside a building in the development on Linden Boulevard, CBS2’s Sonia Rincon reported.
On Friday evening, the lights had been fixed in the stairwell in the Pink Houses building where the incident happened. But the night before, police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the hallway was pitch black – but for the light that would have been provided from the hallway behind the door to the eighth floor.
Police said the two officers were descending the dimly lit stairwell, when Akai Gurley, 28, who entered the stairwell from the seventh floor, a story down, with his girlfriend.
At that point, rookie Officer Peter Liang apparently accidentally discharged one shot from his service weapon, striking Gurley in the chest, Bratton said. He was taken to Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
Police sources said Officer Liang is left-handed. He had a flashlight in his right hand and the gun in his left, sources said.
He was trying to open a door that swings open into the stairwell, and he turned the door handle with the gun in his hand, police sources said.
At that point, the gun went off accidentally, sources said.
“It’s far safer than picking up your phone or trying to fumble with your phone.”
After the shot was fired, the officers retreated from the staircase back into the hallway, sources told CBS2. They reentered the dark staircase unaware that anyone had been hit by the bullet, sources said.
Gurley’s girlfriend said he was ahead of her when he was shot, sources said. She said she heard the shot and ran downstairs, and at one point, Gurley was behind her also running, sources said.
The girlfriend lost sight of Gurley on the fourth floor, and went back upstairs to find him collapsed on the fifth floor, sources said. She then ran to a neighbor, who called 911, sources said.
Within four minutes, an EMT arrived at the scene to find the girlfriend performing CPR on Gurley, sources said. The 911 call from the neighbor had already been placed before the officers arrived on the fifth floor, but a police radio call of an accidental discharge and a man shot was relayed later after a lieutenant arrived, sources said.
Because the officers did not initially realize that the shot had hit anyone, there was about a five-minute delay in their radio call of a man shot, sources said.
Police said the first 911 call came in at 11:15 p.m. and the ambulance was dispatched a minute later. At 11:19 p.m., the police lieutenant and supervisor arrived on the scene.
But it was after that, at 11:20 p.m., when Liang and his partner radioed for help.
The family of Gurley’s girlfriend, Melissa Butler, also told 1010 WINS’ Glenn Schuck that by her account, the officers said nothing at the time the gun went off.
Why Officer Liang had his gun drawn along with a flashlight in the first place was to be a question for him, and police late Friday had not yet been able to speak with him because of union rules.
But as WCBS 880’s Irene Cornell reported, Bratton emphasized that police believe there was every indication that he never intended to fire a shot at all.
“Let me reinforce – at this point, the deceased is, based on our preliminary investigation, totally innocent,” Bratton said. “(He) just happened to be in that hallway as the officers were entering the adjacent hallway one landing up; was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type.”
Bratton said Friday that Liang had his gun and flashlight out prior to the shooting “for safety reasons” in the darkened stairwell.
“We leave that decision as to when to take a firearm out at the discretion of the officer based on what they encounter or believe they may encounter, so there is not a specific prohibition against taking a firearm out,” Bratton said.
The second officer did not draw his weapon, Bratton said.
“What happened last night was a very unfortunate tragedy,” Bratton said.
He said Gurley and his girlfriend had tried to get an elevator, but it was delayed so they decided to take the stairs instead.
“The deceased was not engaged in any activity other than trying to walk down the stairwell,” Bratton said.
Residents said they heard the gun go off.
“All I heard was a boom,” eighth floor resident Ernestine Terrell told CBS2’s Andrea Grymes. “That’s all I heard.”
“We’re used to hearing sounds,” seventh floor resident Angela Burroghs said. “Not necessarily in the building, not necessarily that close. I could tell it was the hallway because of the sound.”
Burroughs agreed that the dark stairwell is a major safety problem.
“That staircase has been dark for a long time. NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) never makes the repairs that they need to, so it was dark,” she told Schuck. “They may have followed this young man into the building — I don’t know what the situation was, but how could they see what was going on? It’s dark from the roof down to the seventh floor.”
But Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) did not buy the claim that the shooting appeared to be accidental.
“That is a lie,” Barron said. “We believe he intentionally discharged his weapon because he’s inexperienced and he was frightened. Over what, we don’t know.”
Barron spoke with Gurley’s family and came to different conclusions than police.
“So here’s an unarmed, black 28-year-old in the stairwell. Two officers, one Asian, one white, fully armed. He’s unarmed, they meet on the stairwell and he winds up dead with a bullet in his chest,” he said.
Barron is now demanding answers as to what happened.
“I want to hear the justification for this one,” he said. “Don’t tell me the hallway was dimly lit. That’s no reason to kill a black man on a stairwell.”
Nicholas Hayworth also rejected the NYPD determination that the shooting was an accident.
“Guns do not go off accidentally,” he said. “They have to squeeze the trigger.”
His 13-year-old son was shot and killed 20 years ago by police while playing in the stairwell at the Gowanus Houses in Brooklyn.
And Councilwoman Inez Barron (D-42nd) also disputed Bratton’s claims about where and when it is appropriate for officers to draw their guns. Protocol mandates that when officers are doing searches in stairwells, they should not have their guns drawn.
“What (NYPD Housing) Chief (Carlos) Gomez said on April 28 – which I’m sure all of you can Google and find in the City Council record – contradicts what Bratton said today,” she said.
Councilwoman Barron said NYCHA police safety protocol had changed after someone else was accidentally shot in 2004 under very similar circumstances.
As 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria reported, Councilwoman Barron said Gomez testified officers are supposed to patrol staircases with their guns in the holster and their finger away from the trigger.
She also wondered why two rookie officers were partners.
“Two rookies together – the blind leading the blind,” the councilwoman said.
But Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said the stairwells in the Pink Houses are, in fact, dangerous. He called the Pink Houses “among the most dangerous projects in the city.”
“Dimly lit stairways and dilapidated conditions create fertile ground for violent crime, while the constant presence of illegal firearms creates a dangerous and highly volatile environment for police officers and residents alike,” Lynch said in a statement.
But in this case, the officers were the only ones who were armed. Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson will be leading an investigation.
“Many questions must be answered, including whether, as reported, the lights in the hallway were out for a number of days, and how this tragedy actually occurred,” Thompson said in a statement.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the investigation will get to the bottom of it, WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb reported. But for now, Liang has turned in his gun and shield.
“This is a tragic situation — that’s the bottom line. This is a tragedy. A life is lost, and my heart goes out,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio, Bratton, and First Lady Chirlane McCray met privately for 15 minutes with Gurley’s family in Red Hook Friday evening.
“It was a very human moment,” said the Rev. Kirsten John Foy of the National Action Network. “The first thing that the mayor and first lady did was to give her a huge and a kiss and embrace (Gurley’s mother); express their condolences.”
Meanwhile, Gurley’s girlfriend, Butler, attended the rally in the Pink Houses Friday night. She was silent as tears washed down her face.
Liang and his partner are 27 years old and were appointed to the NYPD in July 2013, sources said. They are from the same Police Academy class, sources said.
Police said Gurley has a 2-year-old son. His mother lives in Florida.
Gurley has 24 prior arrests on his record, police said.
The investigation is ongoing.
Check Out These Other Stories From CBSNewYork.com: