Akai Gurley, 28, was unarmed when he was accidentally shot by a New York Police Department (NYPD) cop manning the apartment building in East New York where his girlfriend lived.
Gurley and his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, 27, were entering the "pitch black" stairwell on the seventh floor of Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn when Gurley was shot in the chest by Peter Liang, a 27-year-old officer who has been with the NYPD for 18 months.
The single shot, Butler tells the New York Times, sent her father-of-one boyfriend tumbling to the fifth flight where he lay dying in a pool of his own blood. Gurley was declared dead at the Brooklyn University Hospital shortly after.
"They didn't identify themselves," says Butler. "No nothing. They didn't give no explanation. They just pulled a gun and shot him in the chest."
Police Commissioner William J. Bratton says the shooting appears to be an accident. He says Liang and his partner, Shawn Landau, who is also a rookie, were assigned to patrol the housing complex after several incidents of violence, including two homicides. The top cop also says Liang had his gun and flashlight out while patrolling the building's "dimly lit" stairwell. Landau had not.
"What happened last night was a very unfortunate tragedy," Bratton tells the press in a news conference on Nov. 21. "It appears this may have been in fact an accidental discharge."
Asked why an officer would take out his weapon during instances with no clear threat, Bratton says the decision to draw a weapon is left to the "discretion of the officers based on what they are encountering or believe they may encounter."
"There's not a specific prohibition against taking a firearm out," he says. "(But) as in all cases, an officer would have to justify the circumstances that required him to or resulted in his unholstering his firearm."
Gurley and his girlfriend entered the stairs at around 11:15 p.m. A tear-stricken Butler says they were supposed to take the building's elevator but couldn't wait for it to arrive so they chose the stairs on the seventh floor. The officers were coming from the rooftop.
Liang had his firearm out for "safety reasons," Bratton says. The lights were not working on the darkened stairwell. There was no sound either, Butler says, aside from the sound of a single gunshot that hit Gurley in the chest.
"My heart goes out to the family of the young man who was lost," says New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. "We don't know enough but it does appear to have been an accident. And look, we're going to do a full investigation."
Following standard protocol, Liang had turned in his badge and gun. He is currently on modified duty.
Gurley's death adds yet another kink to the strained police and community relations after 43-year-old Staten Island man Eric Garner died in custody from a chokehold by a police officer during arrest.
Just weeks after, the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown propelled the issue of police brutality into the spotlight. Both cases are being reviewed by separate grand juries that are expected to release decisions soon.
"What happened in Ferguson is different [from] what happened on Staten Island [and] different [from] what happened in Brooklyn," says de Blasio. "Each of them has their own dynamic."
State assemblyman Charles Barron is outraged over the shooting of Gurley and tells residents of Brooklyn the police are going to need more than issue an apology.
"They didn't find a gun," Barron says. "And believe me, if he had anything, if he had a slingshot, they would have put that in the report. This is incredible. I want to hear the justification for this one."