February 11, 2016 at 8:37 PM
By Mark Berman
The rookie New York City police officer who fatally shot Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project was convicted Thursday of manslaughter and fired from the department.
The officer, Peter Liang, was patrolling the building with his gun drawn in November 2014 when he fired the fatal shot. He fired his weapon after Gurley and his girlfriend opened a door to the stairwell, a shooting that has been described as accidental by Liang and the police and called reckless by prosecutors.
Shortly after the verdict was announced Thursday, Liang was fired, a spokesman for the New York City Police Department said.
William J. Bratton, the police commissioner, has described Gurley as “totally innocent” and called the shooting an accident, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) called Gurley’s death “a tragedy.”
Gurley’s death was one of several high-profile incidents to draw increased attention in an atmosphere of heightened scrutiny nationwide over how police officers use deadly force.
His shooting occurred just weeks before a grand jury decided not to indict an officer over the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died earlier that year after being placed in an apparent chokehold. Garner’s death and the grand jury’s decision both prompted protests in New York. A federal grand jury is now hearing evidence in Garner’s case.
The head of the city’s largest police union decried the verdict Thursday night as a bad decision that could hinder policing in New York.
“We are very disappointed in the verdict and believe that the jury came to an absolutely wrong decision,” Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement.
Lynch said that while the shooting was “a terrible and tragic accident,” he did not think it was a crime. “This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident,” he said.
Last week, after two officers were shot and injured in the stairwell of a Bronx housing project, Lynch tied that shooting with Liang’s case in arguing that officers need to have their guns drawn patrolling in stairwells. He said that because officers can routinely find people with guns during such patrols, “it’s the reason that our members, like police officer Peter Liang, have weapons drawn while performing this job.”
During the trial, Liang had testified that he inadvertently fired after being startled by a noise, but prosecutors argued that he acted recklessly and should have tried to help Gurley.
Even after the conviction, some uncertainty lingers in the case, as a judge had yet to rule on a request from Liang’s lawyers to dismiss the charges, the Associated Press noted.
Last year, Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, said that that his office conducted “a thorough investigation” into the shooting before a grand jury returned a six-count indictment charging Liang with second-degree manslaughter as well as negligent homicide, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct.
Liang faces up to 15 years in prison.
His indictment and conviction came as more attention is being paid to fatal shootings by police and, over the last year, more officers were facing charges.
A Washington Post analysis found that an average of five officers per year have been indicted on felony charges over the previous decade, that number more than tripled last year, suggesting that prosecutors were more willing to charge officers. Last year, 18 officers were charged with felonies that included murder, manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.
Convictions are even rarer: Before this week, only 11 of the 65 officers charged in fatal shootings over the past decade were convicted.