NYPD Officer Peter Liang Breaks Down on Stand as he Recalls Killing of Akai Gurley

Mr. Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer, read a statement. Credit Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times
Mr. Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer, read a statement. Credit Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times

As a rookie New York City police officer recounted the night a bullet fired from his gun had ricocheted down a stairwell in a Brooklyn housing project, it seemed as if he was reliving the moment he realized a man had been hit, his heart pierced by the shot. The officer had gone searching for the bullet, he said. Over the ringing in his ears, he could hear someone wailing. He ran down the stairs. On the fifth-floor landing, a man lay sprawled in blood.

“I bent over and looked at him,” the officer, Peter Liang, said on Monday in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, where his manslaughter trial in the death of the man, Akai Gurley, 28, entered its third week. “And it looked that he was seriously injured; his eyes were rolled back.”

The officer stopped speaking. He twisted his body to the courtroom wall and turned his back to the audience, where Mr. Gurley’s family has packed the benches every day of the trial. He began to cry.

“I was panicking,” Officer Liang continued after a pause.

He struggled to keep his composure during two hours of testimony that offered a rare glimpse into the dread and confusion of a routine police patrol gone wrong, and the emotions that appeared to fuel subsequent missteps as Mr. Gurley lay dying. “I was shocked,” he said, raggedly. “I was in disbelief that someone was actually hit.”

Monday was the first time Officer Liang, 28, spoke publicly of the night Mr. Gurley was killed in the Louis H. Pink Houses in the East New York section of Brooklyn, an event that Rae Downes Koshetz, a lawyer for the officer, described in opening arguments as a “tragedy” and “a million-to-one shot.”

In addition to manslaughter, Officer Liang faces charges of official misconduct for failing to aid Mr. Gurley, a father to two young girls. Mr. Gurley had spent the evening at his girlfriend’s apartment on the seventh floor of 2724 Linden Boulevard with her family while she plaited cornrows in his hair.

In emotional gatherings outside the courthouse throughout the trial, the victim’s parents and other relatives have denounced the officer, who is Chinese-American, and what they say is a culture of police violence against black men like Mr. Gurley.

Officer Liang testified that after he and his partner, Shaun Landau, arrived on the eighth floor of the Pink Houses on Nov. 20, 2014, he opened the door to the stairwell, which was pitch black, and he heard a noise.

Officer Liang said he flinched.

“I heard something on my left side; it was a quick sound and it just startled me,” he said. “And the gun just went off after I tensed up.”

He said he had no idea anyone had been hurt. Immediately after the shot was fired, he returned to the hallway, where he and his partner debated who would call their supervisor to report that a shot had been fired, as officers are required to do. Neither did.

It was only after Officer Liang went into the stairwell to look for the bullet, he testified, that he heard someone crying, went down the stairs and realized that a man had been shot.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution has drubbed Officer Liang for having his gun unholstered when he opened the stairwell door that night, characterizing him as reckless for doing so in a place full of families going about their lives.

But in his testimony, Officer Liang said he believed it was warranted. He and his partner were headed to the roof of the building when the gun, which he said he pointed downward for safety, went off. “There are bullet holes in the roof, there is evidence of drugs, there is drug dealing, people get assaulted and raped in these areas,” he said. In the unlighted stairwell, it felt necessary.

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SOURCE: NY Times – Sarah Maslin Nir