Wall Street Journal
November 23, 2014

Civil-Rights Leaders Call for Investigation into Police Shooting in Brooklyn

Rev. Al Sharpton Addressed Crowd Saturday With Family of Victim Akai Gurley


Kimberly Michelle Ballinger, domestic partner of Akai Gurley, who was shot by an NYPD officer, is joined by Rev. Al Sharpton at the National Action Network in New York on Saturday. 

Civil-rights leaders and elected officials joined the family members of an unarmed man shot and killed by police earlier this week, demanding changes in policing methods as well as a thorough investigation into the incident.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio , addressing the press Friday, described the shooting of Akai Gurley, 28 years old, as a “tragic mistake.” A rookie New York City Police Department officer fired his gun Thursday night, as he and his partner were patrolling a dark stairwell — which had been described as “pitch-black” by Police Commissioner William Bratton — of a building in a Brooklyn public-housing complex, authorities said. The bullet struck Mr. Gurley, who was descending the stairs with a friend.

“They’re saying it was an accident,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, who addressed a crowd of about 200 people Saturday morning at the Harlem office of the National Action Network, a civil-rights group he heads. “We’re saying, ‘How do we know unless there is a thorough investigation into all that happened?’”

Mr. Gurley’s sister Akisha Pringle, 18 years old, his domestic partner Kimberly Michelle Ballinger, 25 years old, and their 2-year-old daughter Akaila Gurley joined Mr. Sharpton and local political leaders at the event but they didn’t speak to reporters.

Also in attendance were Janice Davis-Asiedu, sister of Mr. Gurley’s stepfather, and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed Staten Island man who died after police placed him in an apparent chokehold in July.

Later in the day, Ms. Pringle appeared briefly with Mr. Sharpton, denouncing the circumstances of her brother’s death: “All he is, is an innocent guy walking down the stairs who was killed for no apparent reason at all,” she said. “Now I’ve lost my brother.”

“This tragic incident is under review, and the mayor awaits the results and findings of the investigation,” said Phil Walzak, a spokesman for the mayor. “The mayor and police commissioner will continue to implement reforms that bring police and community closer together.”

On Friday, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson called Mr. Gurley’s death “deeply troubling” and vowed “an immediate, fair and thorough investigation” into whether criminal charges should be filed.

The shooting of Mr. Gurley has drawn attention to the NYPD’s so-called vertical patrols, where officers routinely sweep New York City Housing Authority stairwells and roofs with flashlights and service weapons drawn.

Crime scene investigators who have done a preliminary reconstruction of the scene believe Officer Peter Liang, who is left-handed, had a gun in his left hand and a flashlight in his right as he went to open the door, according to a senior police official with knowledge of the investigation who noted that Mr. Liang had yet to be interviewed and the scenario could change.

The official said investigators believe Officer Liang, 25 years old, tried to turn the knob of the door to the stairwell with the same hand that was clutching his gun. Shortly after the door opened, the gun went off, the two officers jumped back, and Officer Liang made a comment to his partner, officer Shaun Landau, 27 years old, that he had accidentally fired the shot, the official said.

Investigators also discovered an indentation in a wall and are trying to determine if the bullet had ricocheted off the wall before striking Mr. Gurley, the senior official said.

According to a preliminary investigation, no words had been exchanged between the two rookie officers and Mr. Gurley before the shooting, authorities said.

Officer Liang apparently had “no intention to strike anybody,” Mr. Bratton said at a news conference Friday. He also said Mr. Gurley was a “total innocent” and “was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type.”

Mr. Liang has been placed on desk duty, and stripped of his badge and gun, a 9mm Glock, pending the outcome of the investigation.

“How is having your gun out with no provocation, your finger on the trigger, your safety off an ‘accident?’” asked Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, who joined Mr. Sharpton and the family members on Saturday. “At minimum, that sounds like criminal negligence.”

A New York Police Department representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Bratton said Friday that officers have discretion to conduct these types of patrols with guns drawn but they have to justify it.

“While we police officers risk our lives in these dark, poorly managed and maintained buildings, we have every right to take precautions to protect ourselves from danger because we too want to go home to our families,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “We are deeply saddened at the loss of Mr. Gurley in this tragic accident and we send our thoughts and prayers to his family. We also feel deeply for the police officer who will have to live with the results of this terrible accident for the rest of his life.”

The shooting follows other high-profile cases of unarmed people dying at the hands of police, including Michael Brown in Missouri and Mr. Garner on Staten Island.

“At some point, someone in the administration has to grab hold of what we’re doing here and make significant changes to the way we police black and brown communities,” Mr. Williams said.

Brooklyn Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron and several activist groups are planning a march and rally in Brooklyn on Saturday evening in response to the shooting.

—Pervaiz Shallwani contributed to this article.

Write to Keiko Morris at keiko.morris@wsj.com and Mark Morales atmark.morales@wsj.com