NEW YORK — Stunned relatives of an unarmed man killed by a rookie police officer in a dark public housing stairwell looked on as the Rev. Al Sharpton and public officials demand a full investigation Saturday into what law enforcement officials have termed an apparent accident.
"We're not demonizing the police," Sharpton said, but "this young man should not be dead."
Police said the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley at in Brooklyn's gritty East New York neighborhood appears accidental. But "how do we know until there is a thorough investigation of all that happened?" Sharpton asked.
He spoke at a rally in Harlem, standing alongside Gurley's 2-year-old daughter, her mother, and several elected officials. Gurley's relatives remained silent during and after the rally.
Gurley's death comes at a sensitive time, with a grand jury weighing whether or not to bring criminal charges against another officer in the chokehold death of a man on Staten Island, and the nation bracing for a potential announcement soon on whether an indictment will be handed up in the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
"Until we address the issue of police killing people of color, we're going to always have the problem; we're deaf on the issue," said Alex Mallory, 64, a Bronx resident who once lived in public housing, said after the rally. "I could have easily been this guy, walking down the stairs."
City police often conduct "vertical patrols" inside public housing by going from roofs down staircases that sometimes are havens for crime. Police Commissioner William Bratton has said the patrols are needed, and the development where Gurley was shot had recently seen a shooting, robberies and assaults.
Officer Peter Liang and his partner, also new to the force, were patrolling a pitch-dark stairwell with flashlights late Thursday night, police said. Gurley, 28, was leaving his girlfriend's apartment after she had braided his hair, according to the girlfriend, who is not his daughter's mother.
Police said the officers walked down the stairs onto an eighth-floor landing when Gurley and his girlfriend opened a stairwell door one floor down, having given up on waiting for an elevator. Police said Liang, patrolling with his gun drawn, fired without a word and apparently by accident, hitting Gurley from a distance of about 10 feet.
Mallory, the former public housing resident, said an officer should never patrol a building with a gun drawn.
"What are you saying, people who live in developments are animals, or something?" he asked.
Bratton said officers generally have discretion on whether to draw their weapons based on what they are encountering or believe they may encounter. He called Gurley's death a tragedy that befell someone "totally innocent."
It was unclear how long the stairway's lights had been out or whether there had been complaints. The New York City Housing Authority did not answer those questions Saturday, saying only that the shooting was tragic and that housing officials would "continue to work with the NYPD and our residents to make our properties as safe as possible."
The fatal shooting came a decade after 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury was shot dead by a startled officer on a Brooklyn rooftop of a housing complex. His family got a $2 million settlement with the city.
Liang, 26, has been placed on modified duty. Under standard policy, police internal affairs investigators won't be able to question him until prosecutors have decided whether to file criminal charges. Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has called the shooting "deeply troubling" and said it warrants "an immediate, fair and thorough investigation."
New York Assemblyman-elect Charles Barron organized a protest march on Saturday evening from the shooting scene to the police department office that patrols housing developments.
In a statement, march organizers said there was nothing "accidental" about Gurley's shooting.
"This is the deadly consequence of the increasing militarization of the police, from New York City to Ferguson — and beyond."