Politico New York

5:06 p.m. | Mar. 23, 2016


DA asks for probation, not prison, for former officer who killed Gurley

By AZI PAYBARAH

Ken Thompson AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The former NYPD officer convicted of manslaughter for shooting an unarmed public housing resident as he entered a darkened stairwell in Brooklyn in 2014 does not pose a threat to the public and should not be sentenced to prison, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who prosecuted him.

In a statement, Thompson said, “Mr. Liang has no prior criminal history and poses no future threat to public safety. Because his incarceration is not necessary to protect the public, and due to the unique circumstances of this case, a prison sentence is not warranted. Justice will be best served if Mr. Liang is sentenced to five years of probation, with the condition that he serves six months of home confinement with electric monitoring and performs 500 hours of community service.”

Thompson’s prosecution of Liang sparked outrage from Asian-Americans, including former New York City comptroller John Liu who said it appeared Liang, a rookie officer, was made a scapegoat for broader problems in the criminal justice system, which for years has seen police officers (many of them white) not held accountable for killing individuals, many of them black and Latino.

Liang was on a vertical patrol in NYCHA's Pink Houses in 2014 when he and a partner, also a rookie, entered a stairwell where a lightbulb was malfunctioning. Liang testified that he was nervous and patrolling with his firearm unholstered. He then said he heard a noise and unintentionally discharged his weapon. The bullet ricocheted and struck Gurley.

"There is no evidence, however, that he intended to kill or injure Akai Gurley," Thompson said in his statement Wednesday. "When Mr. Liang went into that building that night, he did so as part of his job and to keep the people of Brooklyn and our city safe. "

Asked if Mayor Bill de Blasio supports Thompson's recommendation, Monica Klein, de Blasio's spokeswoman, said in a statement, "The death of Akai Gurley was a tragedy, and this case now rests with the judge, who we trust will make an impartial and just decision."

Liang and his partner, who did not provide medical assistance to Gurley, were both fired from the NYPD.

Thompson's statement has so far received a mixed response.

Gurley’s mother Sylvia Palmer, stepfather Kenneth Palmer and aunt Hertenica Petersen said in a joint statement they are outraged by Thompson’s recommendation. “The District Attorney’s inadequate recommendation diminishes what Peter Liang did. It diminishes Akai’s death” and “we hope that Judge Chun will take seriously the crimes for which Peter Liang was convicted, and appropriately sentence Liang to serve time in prison.”

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association said in a statement, "Criminalizing a mistake, even a tragic accidental discharge like this, serves no good purpose. The reasons cited by the DA for justifying no jail time in this tragedy are the very same reasons that the officer should not have been indicted in the first place."

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, at an unrelated event, declined to comment on the recommendation. 

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a retired NYPD captain, said he is uncertain whether he would have made the same recommendation. He suggested he would have recommended jail time, telling reporters at Brooklyn Borough Hall he would have made a recommendation "in strong consultation with victims’ family."

Asked what message Thompson's move sends to the public and police officers, Adams said, "I don’t think Ken’s decision is going to encourage [police to say] 'I believe I can get away with, with reckless behavior.'" He also said, "There are no winners" in cases like this, where families are "destroyed."

The Justice Committee, a police reform organization, said in a statement that Thompson's recommendation "exposes Thompson as a hypocrite and part of a criminal justice system that continues to devalue Black lives."