The Killing of Akai Gurley: A Mistake, Perhaps, But No Accident (Update)

There was no excuse offered. Akai Gurley did nothing, absolutely nothing, to cause probationary Police Officer Peter Liang to shoot him in the chest and kill him. Whether Gurley did anything wrong in his life before that, even the cops didn’t have the gall to try to taint him with priors so we wouldn’t feel too badly about his killing.  It wouldn’t matter anyway, but that rarely stops people from being stupid enough to connect unrelated dots.

No, Akai Gurley was shot dead for no reason whatsoever. His two-year-old daughter will have no father.  The job he was about to start with the city will be filled by someone else. He can’t do it. He’s dead. For no reason.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton called it an accident.

The shooting, at 11:15 p.m. on Thursday . . .  But 12 hours later, just after noon on Friday, the New York police commissioner, William J. Bratton, announced that the shooting was accidental and that the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers.

Bratton is a smart guy. Bratton knows that the triggers on NYPD police sidearms requires 12 pounds of pull to fire the first shot.  Bratton knows the difference between an accident and a mistake.  An accident is the alternative to deliberate conduct.  There is no way a trigger requiring 12 pounds of pull is fired accidentally.  It takes a lot of work to pull that trigger. Bratton knows this.

The problem begins with Liang’s poor training and inexperience.  NYPD has a long and pathetic history with firearms.  City cops are widely ridiculed for their inability to hit anything, for lack of training and practice.  When they fire a gun, a bystander is more likely in danger than their target. That’s because they really, truly suck at it, and the NYPD does little to improve the situation.

And yet, the Patrol Guide apparently lets cops pull weapons whenever they’re scared.

Mr. Bratton said that whether an officer should draw his weapon while on patrol when there was no clear threat was a matter of discretion.

“There’s not a specific prohibition against taking a firearm out,” he said, adding, “As in all cases, an officer would have to justify the circumstances that required him to or resulted in his unholstering his firearm.”

That it’s a matter of officer discretion makes some sense, except when one realizes that unfettered discretion means that Officer Tinkerbell gets to pull his gun out whenever he wants, rather than when there is justification to use it.

Since they can’t smear Gurley, the victim, the police have gone the opposite route and blamed it on Pink Houses, a housing project. PBA prez, Patrick Lynch, jumps in for the sake of hyperbole.

“The Pink Houses are among the most dangerous projects in the city, and their stairwells are the most dangerous places in the projects,” he said. “Dimly lit stairways and dilapidated conditions create fertile ground for violent crime, while the constant presence of illegal firearms creates a dangerous and highly volatile environment for police officers and residents alike.”

Bratton offered a slightly more fact-based description.

The shooting occurred in the Louis H. Pink Houses in the East New York neighborhood. The housing project had been the scene of a recent spate of crimes — there have been two robberies and four assaults in the development in the past month, two homicides in the past year, and a shooting in a nearby lobby last Saturday, Mr. Bratton said.

So housing projects have crime? Alert the media. That’s why police patrol them. Liang and his partner, having just checked the roof, entered the stairwell, which was either dimly lit or pitch black, according to which report you check.

Having just inspected the roof, the officers prepared to conduct what is known as a vertical patrol, an inspection of a building’s staircases, which tend to be a magnet for criminal activity or quality-of-life nuisances.

Those quality-of-life nuisances will surely scare the daylights out of a probie.  The initial reports stated that Liang drew his gun, while he and his partner held flashlights, doing the “vertical patrol” (which means walking in a stairwell in cop jargon).  Liang had no particular reason to draw his weapon.  There was no call for criminal activity. There was no sounds that gave rise to fears, whether reasonable or not. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that he had any basis to use his weapon.

No, Liang was afraid.  Just a scared rabbit of a kid cop.  Stairwells were scary. Bad things could happen in stairwells. Liang was going to make sure that if anything bad happened in that stairwell, it wasn’t going to happen to him.  The First Rule of Policing kicked in, even though there was nothing in particular to be afraid of.  Better safe than sorry, and Liang anticipated fear and had no plan of getting caught short.

For Akai Gurley, it wasn’t safe to be in a stairwell with a teacup cop, too delicate and afraid to be there without a gun at the ready.

The narrative grew increasingly complex as the police had more time to think about it.

Officer Liang is left-handed, and he tried to turn the knob of the door that opens to the stairwell with that hand while also holding the gun, according to a high-ranking police official who was familiar with the investigation and who emphasized that the account could change.

The account could change?  Either it’s the account, or it’s not. Was this the story they were sticking with, or were they leaving the door open in case a better story came along? Clearly, it was the second.

It appears that in turning the knob and pushing the door open, Officer Liang rotated the barrel of the gun down and accidentally fired, the official said. He and the other officer both jumped back into the hallway, and Officer Liang shouted something to the effect that he had accidentally fired his weapon, the official said.

There is only one, just one, piece of this story that doesn’t emit the stench of bullshit: that the bullet that struck Akai Gurley wasn’t aimed at Akai Gurley.  That’s because the chances of an NYPD officer hitting his target is slim to none.  Then again, even an NYPD rookie should be better trained than to turn a door knob with his gun hand. Hell, even a brain-dead blithering idiot would know better than that.

The story remains that P.O. Liang never meant to shoot Akai Gurley. He had no reason, none, to do so. There was no justification, even with the Police Department’s finest public relations minds on the job, possible.  So “accidental” became the talking point.  But this was no accident. Liang didn’t go “oops” as his finger somehow pulled the wrong way when he turned the knob. That trigger had to be pulled, and pulled hard, to fire that bullet. Liang pulled it.

Akai Gurley died because some rookie cop was a frightened little bunny.  Akai Gurley died because the NYPD fails to adequately train its officers, and have rules prohibiting the drawing of weapons when no threat exists to justify their use.  Akai Gurley died because Police Officer Peter Liang put the First Rule of Policing ahead of the life of an innocent human being. Akai Gurley died because Liang killed him.

Update:  And the NYPD was sooo close to not being complete assholes for once. But no. Via CBS2:

Gurley has 24 prior arrests on his record, police said.

So now, we don’t feel so bad about his having been killed for nothing. Thanks Bratton.  And thanks, CBS2 (and, no doubt, others who will repeat this pointless smear) for disseminating this critical piece of information about a dead man.

Not that it matters, but note that it’s arrests, not convictions. But either way, it’s totally irrelevant.

31 thoughts on “The Killing of Akai Gurley: A Mistake, Perhaps, But No Accident (Update)

  1. none

    If this account in any way reflects reality, the entire NYPD training program is suspect and exposes horrible shortcomings in recruitment. The NYPD could do a better job of providing for public safety if they simply replaced burnt out bulbs in stairways.

    1. SHG Post author

      One time you get a comment. If you wish to comment again, provide an email. If you prefer not to play by my rules, go elsewhere. That is all.

  2. Anne Krone

    Of course the account is subject to revision, because even as we speak, I am sure the NYPD is desperately searching past records to find something, anything on Gurley that they can trot out to show that he was a Bad Person. So even though the cops had no earthly idea who was “accidentally” shot, it’s still okay because he was a Bad Person and the badge lickers can continue to rest safely knowing that cops only shoot Bad People even if only by accident.

  3. Andrew S.

    I wish I could say I was surprised by the information in the update. I really do. I had seen that info in a NY Daily News article earlier; but I expected that, because well, it’s the Daily News. But getting into other media? Ugh.

    Also, don’t read the comments to the article linked there unless you want to curl up in the fetal position in the corner. I’m not sure why I did that.

  4. Nigel Declan

    “It’s far safer than picking up your phone or trying to fumble with your phone.”

    Unless there are a large number of citizen deaths attributable to officers negligently picking up or fumbling phones of which I am not aware, I am curious what metric the NYPD uses to measure safety.

    1. P. Snijder

      The cynical person in my sees it as “far safer for the officer himself” as he might drop it and it would break, and the nasty bean counters might force him to replace it out of his own pocket! Or even worse: Walk around with one of those broken iPhone screens and announce you’re no better then then rabble! Better to just drop your gun, there will never be a cost associated with that.

  5. Peter H

    Unless I’m missing something here, it seems like a charge of second degree manslaughter against officer Liang would be legally justified, based on the account supplied by the police.

    Officer Liang, having received training in firearm safety, and having no specific reason to fear for his life from an assailant, drew his firearm, and then used the hand carrying that firearm to open a door without knowing who might be on the other side of that door. This behavior resulted in a man’s death when officer Liang’s firearm discharged.

    Given his having received training, the just plain stupid idea of opening a door knob while holding a gun, and the no threat to life which would justify having a gun out, his behavior seems reckless, and it definitely caused the death of another person.

    1. SHG Post author

      The question hinges on whether his handling of the gun was reckless. As a culpability element, reckless is defined as:

      3. “Recklessly.” A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. A person who creates such a risk but is
      unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication also acts recklessly with respect thereto.

      Under this definition and the caselaw, turning the knob with gun in hand doesn’t rise to the level of culpability necessary for recklessness. It’s unlikely to be held a “a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that the gun would discharge.

      1. Mark

        Well, I think that when he put his finger in the trigger guard without the intention of firing his weapon he was reckless. I think they could make a manslaughter charge stick.

        1. SHG Post author

          Well, I think…

          Let me know when they make you a judge, so these three words matter. Having his finger on the trigger when he was not authorized to shoot is certainly negligent. Whether the risk suffices for recklessness is a very different question. Bear in mind, it’s not a good thing to have “recklessness” watered down. That’s the sort of result-oriented thinking that gives rise to terrible unintended consequences. We can’t have it both ways.

          1. Guest

            You don’t seem to understand the crime rate for that housing unit. There has been murders and other acts of crime in that housing complex. As a cop they always have their hand on their gun at all times. Have you ever been pulled over? I come from a family of law enforcement officers and until you are an actual cop and put in a building where there has been drug dealing, murders, etc…then you can speak on how the handling should be.

            The hallway was pitched black, so the cop had a right to have his hand on his gun or to hold his gun. Some times guns do automatically discharge accidentally. Sometimes guns get jammed. Yes an unarmed man is dead, but that doesn’t mean the cop intended to commit a murder. I’d like to see how tough you are to go into a dark hallways in a crime infested housing complex. See how quick you will be startled. Should the officer be charged with recklessness and negligence yes, but not murder. Unless you were there you would not know if it was an accidental discharge or intentional.

            Sometimes you people are so quick to judge circumstances and victim blame when you have no idea of the exact circumstances or evidence involved in this act. All you care about is an unarmed black man with a drug dealing record who was released on parole in 2011, more than you care about innocent black kids being shot through gun violence, drug dealing, robberies, etc… Where do I hear people protesting against that? Obviously they care more when the victim is black and the shooter is of another race. Sad!

            1. SHG Post author

              I was rather surprised not to have some pseudonymous family member of a cop show up to pull out every utterly nonsensical excuse in the book. About time you showed up.

            2. william doriss

              I have a question: How many policemen does it take to change a lightbulb in a crappy old housing project?
              A: Four: One to hold the flashlight; one to hold the ladder; one to hold the gun; and one to call Maintenance.
              I would not do that job if you paid me. Furthermore, if I should ever be permitted to carry a sidearm, I’d probably use it as well. I’d rather be a judge. No,… I take that back! Perhaps a sanitation worker, a bus driver,…
              or a CDL. (Not necessarily in that order.)

      2. Peter H

        Thanks for the insight. I guess the conscious disregard aspect is where it would also become non-reckless.

        1. SHG Post author

          Reckless is, and should be, a fairly high standard, or much of negligent conduct would end up fitting in there, criminalizing accidents based on the harm they caused rather than the mens rea of the actor. It’s a slippery slope problem.

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  7. Skywalker

    I grew up in a housing project in the Bronx and two of my cousins are retired NYPD. My cousins never drew their guns unless they believed someone’s life was in danger and that they might have to kill someone.
    If a probationary cop is too scared to walk down a stairwell in a residential building without a gun drawn, he or she is a menace to the community and should be terminated. Cops too often forget that people live in the projects, yet public housing residents are often treated like inmates.
    One of the worst aspects of this case is the 11/21/2014 Daily News report that “It took the two officers a full five minutes after the first 911 call to report the shooting, backing the contention of sources that the two rookies were stunned and unsure what to do.”
    Even in his shock and remorse, Liang showed no concern for the victim. The first thing any good cop should have done once he shot someone was to call dispatch unless he was in a firefight or hot pursuit and could not safely make the call. Could Akai Gurley’s life have been saved if the EMT’s arrived 5 minutes earlier? We may never know. But those two cops should go. Liang for recklessly drawing and handling his weapon and his partner for failing to promptly report the incident or to prevent Liang from walking into a residential stairwell with a drawn gun.

    1. SHG Post author

      I haven’t yet touched their failure to call it in, as I fear too many issues deflects people with short attention spans for the primary one, the shot. But you’re absolutely right.

  8. Martin

    Imagine the victim here had been Asian-American, and the cop who killed him had been African-American: I believe the media would have had quite a different point-of-view, even “human interest”, in the victim and his family, rather than disdain and pre-judgement and blame for the victim. I am sick and tired of hearing from “the family of law enforcement” people whose only interest is to shame the rest of us into ever believing a cop could do the wrong thing. Officer Liang should not have fired at Gurley, and Gurley was the innocent victim of a murder- unintentional though it may have been. Having been a public high school teacher who worked with kids from a number of housing projects over 3 decades of teaching, I can attest to the horrors and danger innocent kids- and their families- face every day growing up and living day-to-day in these grim places. Where are the specialists who would sensitize those new recruits who drew the short straw and were assigned to “vertical patrols”? Shouldn’t new cops have special training (maybe like that photo-op when DeBlasio and the other mayoral hopefuls stayed overnight in a housing project!) so that they don’t add to the armed camp environment- but act instead as agents of change?

  9. jo b

    How about the other employees that have the misfortune of maintaining these projects? Why does an elevator mechanic have to witness a murder and then run for his life when the thugs turn on him? Who protests for them? Its so easy for you all to sit there typing your ignorance without first hand experience. Try walking through there after dark.

    These thugs that make every one uneasy need to go. Take back your homes. Push the criminals out, then maybe no one has to be afraid of stray bullets or assault.

    1. SHG Post author

      I wonder if there was a picture of you hanging in H.L. Mencken’s office. Thanks for solving the problem as best you can.

      1. jo b

        “The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear– fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety.”

        1. SHG Post author

          Fear is a base emotion. It’s instinctive. If it rules our actions, in place of higher order thought, whoever had the most guns will just kill everyone who he perceives to be a threat. And that will be that. Or we can try to craft a world that isn’t ruled by fear, but by reason. Many will disagree, because they lack the capacity for reason, and instead allow themselves to be ruled by fear and ignorance.

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