‘Nothing to Do With Ferguson, Eric Garner’: Cop Is Indicted in Akai Gurley Death

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images) Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images

Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, solemnly unveiled a six-count indictment this afternoon against the NYPD officer who shot and killed Akai Gurley, striving to show the public his office was not pressured by the police protests that have roiled the city and nation over the last year.

Mr. Thompson, a Democrat, maintained the indictment against the 27-year-old officer, Peter Liang, had nothing to do with the Eric Garner or Michael Brown cases and that he worked closely with–and admired–the police department. Unlike prosecutors in other high-profile cases, Mr. Thompson appeared to take little joy in bringing a bevy of charges, including second-degree manslaughter, against Mr. Liang.

“I think that’s unfair to suggest the grand jury was trying to do something in light of Eric Garner,” Mr. Thompson told reporters at a press conference in his downtown Brooklyn offices. “The evidence was presented to the grand jury and an indictment was returned. This case has nothing to do with Ferguson, Eric Garner, or any other case.”

He added, “This case has to do with an innocent man who lost his life.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Mr. Liang pleaded not guilty, in addition to manslaughter, to one count of criminally negligent homicide, one count of second-degree assault, one count of reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct. The top charge, manslaughter, could land Mr. Liang in prison for 15 years.

Last November, Mr. Liang shot and killed Gurley in an unlit stairwell within an East New York housing project. Gurley, unarmed, was with a companion, and he became yet another African-American to die as the result of a police action, following the Garner and Brown cases.

The officers in the Garner and Brown incidents were not indicted. Anti-police brutality protests rocked the city after the grand jury decisions and a gulf widened between Mayor Bill de Blasio’s liberal City Hall and the more conservative police unions.

After the Gurley incident, Mr. de Blasio urged New Yorkers “not to connect the dots” between Gurley’s death and the Garner case. He agreed with his Police Commissioner Bill Bratton in characterizing the shooting as an “accident,” a description Mr. Thompson today did not dispute.

By securing an indictment, Mr. Thompson, Brooklyn’s first African-American district attorney, won praise in progressive circles. But Mr. Thompson, the son of a police officer, did not seem to be overly comfortable with prosecuting a member of same police force he collaborates with on a day-to-day basis.

He said that he “had an obligation to be fair to the police officers involved in this matter because police officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us all safe,” adding that the “city is safer and stronger because of the courage, sacrifice, and dedication of the men and women of this New York City Police Department.”

Lamenting that there are “no winners here,” Mr. Thompson said the indictment simply showed that “an innocent man’s life has been taken and a young police officer who joined the police force to serve and protect the people of this great city now stands accused of taking that life.”

Mr. Liang had a flashlight in his right hand, a gun in his left hand, and he leaned on the stairwell door to open it with his shoulder,Mr. Thompson said, before firing down the stairwell to where Gurley was standing.

While Mr. Thompson claimed his investigation showed that Mr. Liang, a rookie officer, and his partner had mistakenly debated for several minutes about what to do after Gurley was hit in the chest by a single bullet that had ricocheted off a wall, the district attorney also made sure to note other officers rushed to the scene as Gurley lay dying.

“For those who want to unfairly criticize the police because of this indictment of this one police officer, it is important to recognize the courage and valor that many police officers showed that night,” Mr. Thompson said. “Dozens of police officers ran toward that building thinking that there was an active shooter inside of it. They ran towards what they believed was danger.”

Mr. Thompson refuted a Daily News report that Mr. Liang texted union representatives immediately after he fired the bullet that killed Gurley, but charged the rookie cop had not following his training. “They saw him laying there—the evidence will show they did not render medial assistance to Mr. Gurley as they were trained to do in the police academy. They were trained to provide CPR,” he said.

Inside the courtroom an hour earlier, Gurley family members and supporters jeered when Mr. Liang was allowed to leave without being placed in handcuffs. An aunt cried that he had killed her nephew.

None agreed with Mr. Thompson’s rosy assessment of the NYPD.

“Indict, convict, send Peter Liang to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell,” they chanted as Mr. Liang silently walked out of court.