Akai Gurley was descending a dimly lit staircase in the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York on November 21 when a shot rang out in the darkness.
A single round struck him in the chest, and he was dead a short time later.
His girlfriend, Melissa Butler, walking just in front of him, didn’t know it at first, but the shot had come not from a criminal assailant but from the gun of a young police officer named Peter Liang.
The story that’s emerged since Gurley, 27, succumbed to his injuries, is a bizarre one, if for no other reason than the immediate condemnation by NYPD officials. Commissioner Bill Bratton called Gurley a “total innocent” who had done nothing to provoke the shooting, while mayor Bill de Blasio called it an accident and a “tragedy.”
Different outlets are reporting slightly different sequences of events. On Friday, the New York Post reported, based on anonymous police sources, that Liang was “startled by the couple’s presence” in the dark hallway, which residents said was in chronic disrepair and lacked proper lighting, and “popped off one round.”
In a somewhat more detailed account published the same day by the New York Times, unnamed police officials were saying that Liang had fired accidentally, but not because he was startled. By their accounts, Liang was trying to open a door leading out of the stairwell using the same hand that was holding his service weapon, and somehow mistakenly squeezed the trigger while turning the knob.
So what exactly happened? We’re probably a long way from knowing. The death was ruled a homicide by the city’s medical examiner, but that’s a factual determination that has no bearing on the officer’s culpability. The department says it will conduct a complete investigation, and the Brooklyn district attorney announced on Monday that his office would look into the incident as well.
Former East New York councilman Charles Barron told media on November 21 that he believed the shot was taken intentionally — if mistakenly — by a rookie officer who “discharged his weapon because he’s inexperienced. He was frightened — over what, we don’t know.”
If the shooting was truly unintentional, it would be a pretty uncommon thing. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, the NYPD recorded 21 cases of accidental fire by police officers — “unintentional discharge,” by the department’s statistical definition. To fit that category, these fire incidents “are brought about either wholly or in part by mitigating factors, such as a suspect grabbing an officer’s firearm, an officer losing his or her balance, or when an officer’s shooting hand is struck by an object.”
Twelve of the 21 incidents were categorized as “purely unintentional,” meaning they occurred during the loading or unloading of the weapon, or while simply handling a gun. Two incidents occurred, for example, when a gun being transported in a duffel bag somehow had its trigger activated. The “purely unintentional” discharges didn’t involve a suspect or a struggle at all, and in most cases they occurred while the officer was off duty.
The remaining nine unintentional discharges happened during police work. In one case, an officer serving a warrant in an apartment building unintentionally fired his weapon into the floor, and the bullet grazed the leg of a woman in the apartment below. In another case, a man fleeing an armed robbery — who was not a suspect — was killed when he ran “directly into the [responding] officer’s drawn firearm,” knocking the cop over and causing his gun to fire.
Much has been made about the fact that Liang — who had been on the job less than 18 months — is a new and relatively inexperienced officer. And it’s not exactly clear under which category Liang’s actions would fall. But department statistics suggest that the newest officers are not the most likely to fire a weapon unintentionally. Officers with five or fewer years on the force account for about 25 percent of accidental discharges, which is proportional to their representation in the department.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer who is now a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the NYPD has among the best firearms policies of any major department in the country, pointing to the Annual Firearms Discharge Report as one measure of proof. The report is exhaustive, accounting for every round fired by an NYPD officer’s gun, whether on or off duty, and whether the officer him- or herself pulled the trigger or not. O’Donnell also noted that the NYPD was among the first departments to prohibit what are now regarded as egregiously excessive practices, like firing warning shots and shooting at fleeing suspects.
But, he said, the common practice of carrying out “vertical patrols” with a weapon drawn and at the ready may not be the best approach. And he said too many younger officers, without the benefit of veteran partners, seem to believe that patrolling public housing is like being in a war zone.
“The Pink Houses have some issues, but to depict them as some sort of bad-old-days location really isn’t accurate,” O’Donnell says. The NYPD’s crime statistics show about a 28 percent reduction in crime year to date at the Pink Houses.
Still, O’Donnell said the killing of Officer Anthony McLean, shot to death in the stairwell of Brownsville’s Tilden Houses in 1988, still weighs heavily on officers, and might be making them more wary than necessary in the stairwells of NYCHA buildings. McLean and his partner were in a stairwell conducting a search for a lost child when they stumbled on a drug deal in progress. One of the participants opened fire, killing McLean.
Shortly after he came into office last year, Bratton pledged to end the longstanding NYPD practice of putting the officers with the least experience into the highest-crime areas.
Critics say the policy is exactly backward, placing rookies in the very situations that require the coolest-headed responses. Liang was patrolling with a partner who was equally new to the department, with less than 18 months on the force.
Dangers do exist, but O’Donnell says caution needs to be balanced with good training and the benefit of veteran officers. “Patrolling in public housing, there should be top-quality training for that,” O’Donnell says, “and there might be a need to be more structured as to when weapons should be out in the stairwell.”