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NYPD Officer Indicted By Grand Jury For Unarmed Man's Death


The NYPD officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man in a dark stairwell last year has been indicted on six counts, including manslaughter. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Officer Peter Liang and his partner were both rookies in the NYPD. They were patrolling the dimly-lit stairwell of a high-rise public housing project in Brooklyn last November when police say a shot was accidentally fired from Liang's gun. Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson says the bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the chest.


KENNETH THOMPSON: We don't believe that officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley. But he had his finger on the trigger, and he fired the gun.

ROSE: The charges in the indictment unsealed today include second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Thompson says Officer Liang and his partner did not immediately report the shot to their superiors as they're supposed to.

THOMPSON: The evidence shows that after the shot was fired, they remained on the eighth floor and argued about the officer's refusal to call the shot in - and argued for at least four minutes after they heard the sound of folks running away, after the shot was fired.

ROSE: This case has been under extra scrutiny because of another civilian death involving the NYPD. In that case, a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being placed in a chokehold by police. The officer caught on cell phone video in that incident was white. By contrast, there's no video of the shooting by Officer Liang, who is Asian-American. Mayor Bill de Blasio says the two cases should be considered separately.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: I think that each case is individual, and I think people understand that. I think that folks at the NYPD look at each case individually as well.

ROSE: But to some, the deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner are symptoms of a larger issue.


ROGER WAREHAM: We're dealing with a systemic problem. That's why the Akai Gurley case is about Akai Gurley, but it's also about the way that the NYPD perceives and treats black people.

ROSE: Roger Wareham is a lawyer for Melissa Butler. She was a friend of Akai Gurley who was with him in the stairwell the night he was shot. Butler did not speak to reporters today, but Wareham says she's gratified by the indictment against Officer Liang. And he hopes it will change the way the NYPD operates in black communities.

WAREHAM: Because it may give somebody pause the next time to know that there's a possibility that they may go to jail.

ROSE: At the housing complex where Akai Gurley died, reaction to the indictment was mostly favorable. Levon Walker says he's glad the police will be held accountable for Gurley's death.


LEVON WALKER: He's visiting his family - like, that didn't make any sense. Like, that could happen to any one of us. I got a son, and that could've been my son that got shot like that. That wasn't justified, and it wasn't fair.

ROSE: Resident Melissa Bonia agrees that the grand jury did the right thing. But she also has sympathy for Officer Liang and his family.


MELISSA BONIA: 'Cause, you know, the police officer was doing his job. And he may not have made the right decision at the time but, you know, now it ruined his life, and he also ruined Gurley's family's life, you know?

ROSE: Officer Liang pleaded not guilty to the charges. In a statement, the head of the police officers union says Liang deserves the same due process afforded to anyone involved in the accidental death of another. Akai Gurley's domestic partner plans to file a civil suit against Liang, the NYPD and the city. Joel Rose NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.