By Tina Susman
A rookie cop who shot and killed an unarmed man in a Brooklyn housing project stairwell was indicted Tuesday on criminal charges stemming from the case, which fueled protests over policing tactics.
Officer Peter Liang is to be arraigned Wednesday on several charges, which some local reports said included second-degree manslaughter, reckless endangerment and official misconduct. Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Ken Thompson refused to provide details on the indictment, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, but scheduled a news conference to be held after Liang's arraignment.
If convicted of manslaughter, Liang could face 15 years in prison. The 27-year-old policeman fatally shot Akai Gurley, 28, on Nov. 20. Liang said his weapon went off accidentally as he and his partner conducted what is known as a "vertical patrol" in the stairwell, where the lights were not working.
At the time he was shot, Gurley had gotten tired of waiting for a slow elevator on the building's seventh floor and was entering the stairwell with a woman, who was not injured.
The shooting came at tense time in New York. A grand jury in Staten Island was weighing whether to indict a policeman in the July death of Eric Garner; and a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., was hearing evidence in the August death of Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a police officer there.
Garner, Brown and Gurley all were unarmed black men. Protesters invoked their names in major cities across the country through the fall.
The police officers involved in the Garner and Brown cases, both of whom are white, did not face criminal charges.
In a statement, the chief of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Assn., Patrick J. Lynch, emphasized that police considered Gurley's death an accident.
"This officer deserves the same due process afforded to anyone involved in the accidental death of another," Lynch said of Liang. "The fact that he was assigned to patrol one of most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident."
But Scott Rynecki, a lawyer representing members of Gurley's family, said the shooting was "wrongful and reckless."
"This is the first step in the fight for justice," Rynecki said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose relationship with police union leaders soured in the wake of Garner's death, issued a brief statement. "No matter the specific charges, this case is an unspeakable tragedy for the Gurley family. We urge everyone to respect the judicial process as it unfolds."
The indictment was the second this month of a police officer by a Brooklyn grand jury. On Feb. 3, Thompson announced that a policeman had been indicted on assault and other charges after allegedly stomping on the head of a suspect who was handcuffed and lying face-down.
That officer, Joel Edouard, faces up to one year in jail if convicted.
When Thompson impaneled the grand jury in Liang's case, he pledged a "full and fair investigation."
The indictment was likely to rekindle animosity between police union leaders and De Blasio's administration, which the unions have accused of not supporting police officers. Their feud came to a head in December when two police officers were assassinated by a gunman who had posted anti-police rants online, vowing to avenge Garner and Brown.
Lynch and other police union leaders said De Blasio had created a climate of hostility toward officers, in part because of his tolerance for protests that erupted after Garner's death. After the policemen were slain, some members of the force made a point of turning their backs on De Blasio at public events, including at the officers' funerals.
While De Blasio kept his statement about the indictment brief and apolitical, the Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, made clear he believed it was needed. "An indictment in the Akai Gurley case helps to restore public confidence in our legal system, thoroughly shaken after the Eric Garner case," Adams said in a statement.
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