Shooting of Akai Gurley

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Shooting of Akai Gurley
Date November 20, 2014 (2014-11-20)
Time c. 11:15 p.m. EST
Location Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S.
Participants Killed: Akai Gurley
Officers: Peter Liang and Shaun Landau
Deaths 1
Suspect(s) Peter Liang
Charges Second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, two counts of official misconduct
Convictions Manslaughter, official misconduct
Sentence Five years of probation
Litigation $52 million lawsuit filed by Gurley's family against City of New York

Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot on November 20, 2014, in Brooklyn, New York City, United States, by a New York City Police Department officer. Two police officers, patrolling stairwells in the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA)'s Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, entered a pitch-dark, unlit stairwell, one of them, Officer Peter Liang, 27, with his firearm drawn. Gurley and his girlfriend entered the seventh-floor stairwell, fourteen steps below them. The shooting was declared an accidental discharge; the bullet ricocheted off the wall and Gurley was fatally struck once in the chest.

On February 10, 2015, Liang was indicted by a grand jury (seven men and five women)[1] for manslaughter, assault, and other criminal charges (five counts total)[2] after grand jury members were shown footage of the unlit Pink house, and passed around the 9mm Glock used in the shooting, testing the possibility of equipment failure - concluding that the 11.5 pound trigger could not have been fired unintentionally.[3] Liang turned himself in to authorities the next day to be arraigned on the charges. Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct on February 11, 2016. He was expected to appeal while he remained free without bail. Peter Liang faced up to 15 years of prison time. This verdict galvanized Chinese Community. Chinese Americans used Wechat on a massive scale[4] along with little use of Facebook, Twitter, and email[4] to organize rallies in major cities. Peter Liang appealed the court's decision.[5] On March 28, 2016, the prosecuting Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson recommended to Judge Danny Chun that Liang serve only house arrest and community service for his sentencing.[6]

On April 19, 2016, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun sentenced Peter Liang to five years of probation and 800 hours community service, after downgrading his manslaughter conviction to criminally negligent homicide.[7]

Background[edit]

Akai Gurley[edit]

Akai Kareem Gurley (c. 1986 – November 20, 2014) was born in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Caribbean, and moved to New York when he was a child.[8] He was a resident of the Louis H. Pink Houses, where he lived with his girlfriend and two-year-old daughter. According to police, Gurley had 24 prior arrests on his record.[9][10]

Officer Peter Liang[edit]

Peter Liang (born c. 1987), a Chinese American, had less than 18 months of experience with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) at the time of the shooting. Liang was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to the United States as a child and lived in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, with his parents and grandmother; he also has a younger brother in college.[11] Liang had aspired to become a police officer since he was a child.[12]

Location[edit]

The Louis H. Pink Houses are considered to be among the worst housing developments in New York.[13] Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association of the City of New York, characterizes them as "among the most dangerous projects in the city" with dimly lit stairwells presenting a particular danger.[14] Police Commissioner Bill Bratton reported that there had been a recent "spike in violence" in the neighborhood over the preceding months with two homicides, two robberies, and four assaults,[14][15]

Two rookie police officers were assigned to the Louis H. Pink Houses where they were conducting routine vertical patrols,[16][17] in which officers patrol a public housing complex from the roof to the ground floor, stopping on each floor to see if there is any crime in progress.[15][18] The New York Daily News initiated rumors that their commander had instructed officers in the area not to carry out vertical patrols and instead to conduct exterior policing in the East New York housing project, and that the officers were texting their union representative as Gurley lay dying. The rumors were later debunked by the District Attorney's office, but the Daily News did not issue a retraction or apology.[19] The NYPD’s policy on whether an officer should keep a weapon holstered on such patrols is purposely vague and the decision as to when to take out a firearm is left to the discretion of the officers, according to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.[20] The department also insists that officers place their fingers on the trigger only upon encountering "extreme and particularized danger."[21] During trial testimony, officers testified that they were taught during academy training to have their guns out at times for fear of possible "ambush" or when they felt "unsafe", and that they were specifically trained to take out their firearm as they approached a roof landing because it was "dangerous". One officer testified that cops are taught to beware of a possible "ambush" on vertical patrols specifically. She also testified that you were taught that when you approach a roof landing, you should have your firearm out, finger alongside the trigger.[22] At the time the gun was discharged, the light in the stairwell on the 8th floor was broken and it was pitch black.

Shooting[edit]

Akai Gurley, 28 years old, was visiting his girlfriend and getting his hair braided before Thanksgiving. He entered the stairwell on the 7th floor, below Officers Shaun Landau and Peter Liang, who were patrolling the pitch-dark stairwell with no lights. According to the prosecutors, seconds earlier, Officer Liang, who is left-handed, pulled out his flashlight with his right hand and unholstered his 9mm Glock with his left. He then shoved open the stairwell door with his right shoulder with his gun drawn pointed down the way police officers are trained. It appeared neither side knew the other was there and no words were exchanged, according to authorities.[23] Liang's gun accidentally discharged as he opened the door and the bullet ricocheted off the wall and struck Gurley once in the chest, who died within a few minutes.[24][25][26] Upon entering, Liang said he heard "a quick sound" to his left which startled him. He turned left and "it just went off when my whole body tensed up", Liang testified.[27] It was reported that Gurley actually ran after hearing the gunshot, and didn’t realize he was bleeding until collapsing on the fifth floor.[26]

Similarity to the shooting of Timothy Stansbury Jr.[edit]

The fatal shooting of Akai Gurley is notably[28][29] similar to the shooting death of Timothy Stansbury Jr. that occurred in January 2004, when Officer Richard S. Neri killed Timothy Stansbury Jr., 19, on a roof at the Louis Armstrong Houses in Brooklyn at about 1 a.m. when Officer Neri, with his gun drawn, approached a rooftop door to check the stairway inside. A grand jury declined to indict Officer Neri on charges of criminally negligent homicide, declaring the event an accident, after he gave testimony that he had unintentionally fired; he was startled, he said, when Mr. Stansbury pushed open a rooftop door in a place where drug dealing was rampant.[30][31][32]

Aftermath[edit]

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton declared the shooting to be an accident and that Gurley was a "total innocent".[33] Kings County District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson said that he planned to impanel a grand jury to look into the death of Akai Gurley.[25][34] Media reports initially surfaced that indicated both officers text-messaged their union representatives before calling for help,[19] which were later refuted as false by both the police union and the District Attorney office.[35][36]

As been asked by the reporters, the mayor Bill De Blasio dodged to take any sides of this issue after Liang’s conviction, by only commenting that it is “tragedy” to Gurley’s family and requesting respect to court’s verdict. On the stand of NYPD patrolling, he neutrally noted that as essential to public safety; he also clarified, to Asian Americans, the prevailing argument in Asian society of Peter Liang been a scapegoat as non-existent, [16] and to African Americans, who had the huge suspicions about every police brutality cases were linked together, De Blasio called White supremacy conspiracy as non-existent as well.[37]

Akai Gurley's funeral was conducted December 6 at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Fort Greene. Initially Al Sharpton offered to speak at the service, but stepped down after a dispute within the family. Instead activist Kevin Powell spoke at the service.[38][39] Gurley is interred at Rosedale Memorial Park in Linden, New Jersey.[8]

The continued conduct of vertical patrols has also been scrutinized in the wake of Gurley's shooting. Police Commissioner William Bratton has said that the patrols are needed to reduce crime,[15][18] and vertical patrols continue to be conducted in the Louis H. Pink Houses.[40] On February 5, 2016, while Liang's trial was ongoing, two NYPD officers were shot while conducting vertical patrols at a housing development in the Bronx, although both were expected to survive.[41][42]

Reactions[edit]

Chinese-Americans[edit]

Protestors supporting Peter Liang on February 20, 2016, at Boston Common

More than 3,000 Chinese-Americans showed up at New York City Hall in March 2015 to support Liang. Thousands walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan's Chinatown in April, feeling that Liang was being used as a scapegoat, and demanded the charges to be dropped, as other, white police officers were previously not charged.[43][44]

Following his conviction, Asian-Americans denounced the verdict at various gatherings across the country, many expressing dismay and frustration. There were differing opinions among Liang's supporters, with some still feeling that he should not have been prosecuted at all, and some feeling that he should have been prosecuted but that a manslaughter verdict was too harsh as it carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail, but all agreeing that the overall system needs a change.[45][46][47] State Assemblyman Ron Kim stated, "I do not believe true justice prevailed. Our system failed Gurley and it failed Liang. It pitted the unjust death of an innocent young black man against the unjust scapegoating of a young Asian police officer who was frightened, poorly trained, and who committed a terrible accident."[48]

Nearly 15,000 people protested on behalf of Liang in New York on February 20, 2016,[49] and protests were also held in other cities across the United States on the same day. Liang's supporters held signs with condolences for Gurley, as well as MLK signs and signs asking for justice for Liang and Kizzy Adonis (black police officer who was prosecuted for the death of Eric Garner while the white police officer, Daniel Palanteo, was not charged). Many of Liang's supporters demanded that ALL killers should be prosecuted and that there should be no such thing as selective prosecution, scapegoating, or racism.[50][45] Joseph Lin, a real estate agent and activist, had helped to organize the protests due to feeling that Asian-Americans had been too "passive" or "indifferent" with no political voice, saying that "If he’s a black officer, I guarantee you Al Sharpton will come out. If he’s Hispanic, all the congressmen will come out. But no, he’s a Chinese, so no one is coming out."[47]

New York City councilwoman Margaret Chin stated that she was satisfied with the grand jury indicting Liang but she also asked for leniency in Liang’s sentencing.[51][52][53]

Congresswoman Grace Meng also sent out her voice; however, she did not say anything meaningful that defined her standing. Senator Mark Treyger and William Colton had always spoke on the behalf of Chinese.[54]

Black Lives Matter movement[edit]

Gurley's death was one of several police killings of African Americans protested by the Black Lives Matter movement.[55] On December 27, 2014, 200 people marched in Brooklyn to protest the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley on the same day as the funeral for slain NYPD Officer Rafael Ramos, who was killed in the 2014 killings of NYPD officers, despite calls from the mayor to postpone demonstrations.[56][57][58]

Legal proceedings[edit]

On February 10, 2015, Officer Peter Liang was indicted by a grand jury for the shooting death of Akai Gurley. He was charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two counts of official misconduct. Liang had a court date on February 11, and turned himself in that day.[59][60] He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released without having to post bond, and suspended from his job without pay. His trial started on January 25, 2016. Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct on February 11, 2016.[61] Liang now faced anywhere from no jail to a maximum of 15 years of prison when sentenced in April.[24] His lawyers planned to submit an appeal to Judge Danny Chun while Liang remained free without bail.[48] Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, speculated to The Atlantic that Liang would have avoided conviction had he rendered aid to Gurley, while jurors later reported that the effort required for them to pull the trigger on a police-issued pistol led them to disbelieve that Liang's testimony was completely true.[62]

Shaun Landau, the other officer involved, was not criminally implicated in Gurley's death.[58] However, he was fired from the NYPD one day after his partner was convicted. Officer Landau, like Liang, was also within his two-year probationary period, and his firing after the trial was within his contract. Landau testified at the trial of his former partner under immunity from prosecution. Landau described his partner as "in shock" and that "[Liang] couldn't believe he just shot someone." He said that neither of them tried to revive Mr. Gurley, with both of them saying that they did not feel qualified to perform CPR. According to Landau's words, that the instructor of the police Academy that he and Liang graduated from, gave them the free pass to the course by helping them to cheat on the exams.[63] Both radioed for an ambulance, as Gurley's girlfriend unsuccessfully performed CPR.[64][65]

On April 19, 2016, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun sentenced Peter Liang to five years of probation and 800 hours community service. Chun believes incarceration is "unnecessary”, but "he will be much more productive if he spends more time in community service.” This sentence is in line with previous sentencing for accidental shootings by police officers convicted of negligence (last one was in 2005).[7][66]

Arguments used in court[edit]

The Assistant District Attorney,[67] Joseph Alexis, accused the killing as intentional—Liang “chose” to place the finger on the trigger. However, one of Liang's defense attorneys, Rae Koshetz, argued that what had happened was a tragedy, not a crime, because Liang did not choose to point his gun at the victim, though the bullet bounced off the wall and coincidentally hit Akai Gurley, causing his death.

Liang’s attorneys, Robert Brown and Rae Koshetz, argued that Liang was in a "state of shock" after his gun went off, and did not realize that he hit anyone.[68]

The defendants also argued that Liang pulling out his gun was still falling in the line of protocol, because “lack of lighting is commonly perceived as a sign of criminal activity.”[69] Furthermore, the light, as an answer to Kenneth P. Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney’s, request, and had been out of service for number of days without repair. After Liang’s bullet ricocheted off the wall and struck Akai Gurley in the chest, officer Liang and his partner Landau did not try to save the dying person who lay in the pool of his own blood. CPR was not performed while time passed.[70]

Ending[edit]

In August, 2016, New York City reached a settlement with Akai Gurley’s family with a fine about 4 million dollars, which was initially sued by Kimberley Ballinger,Akaila’s mother, in November 2014. The New York Housing Authority paid 400,000 dollars, and former officer Liang paid 25,000 dollars. All this money will be placed on Akaila, Gurley’s two-year-old daughter, but she does not have access to it until she turns 18, or having approval’s from Court.[71][72]

After the settlement of Liang’s trial, about 260,000 dollar funds were returned to the donors. About 325,000 dollars were given to Liang’s family. About 80,000 dollars would be used for Chinese Communities.[73]

Media coverage[edit]

The incident received national and international coverage, in part due to the time of its occurrence shortly after the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; the July 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, which also involved police officers; and the Ferguson unrest after Brown's fatal shooting, which had attracted public attention.[74][75]

The New York City Police Department's practice of vertical patrols was also criticized.[76][77] The Village Voice described the incident as part of a year of public relations disasters for the NYPD.[78] Other coverage has focused on the maintenance and public safety issues that led to the death.[79][80][81]

Other influence[edit]

On the following Friday, February 12, 2016, Gurley’s family, in a joint statement Friday, demanded ‘The NYPD permanently end all vertical patrols and stop using the NYPD as your security.’ They also requested for Landau to be fired from the department, and for the city to reinvest the fund in programs like “affordable housing”, “community centers and after-school programs,” instead of using it to keep growing the base of NYPD officers.[37]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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