NYC officer pleads not guilty to manslaughter

2015-02-12 07:33
New York City rookie police officer Peter Liang, center, leaves the courtroom after he pleaded not guilty at his arraignment at Brooklyn Superior court. (Mary Altaffer, AP)

New York City rookie police officer Peter Liang, center, leaves the courtroom after he pleaded not guilty at his arraignment at Brooklyn Superior court. (Mary Altaffer, AP)

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New York - A rookie New York City police officer pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to manslaughter, official misconduct and other charges in the shooting death of an unarmed man in a darkened stairwell of a public housing complex.

Officer Peter Liang appeared briefly in a Brooklyn courtroom packed with officers as the charges were unsealed. He also was charged with criminally negligent homicide and assault. He was released without bail.

The case was closely watched following the mass protests and calls for reform of the grand jury system after a New York City grand jury's refusal to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, and a Missouri grand jury's decision not to indict a white officer in the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old who was also unarmed.

The man killed in the stairwell, 28-year-old Akai Gurley, was black. Liang is Chinese-American.

Gurley was killed on 20 November while visiting a public housing complex in Brooklyn's gritty East New York neighbourhood to get his hair braided. Liang had less than two years on the job, including his time at the police academy.

He and his partner were patrolling a public housing complex in Brooklyn where reports of violent crime had spiked.

The hallways were "pitch black," and Liang had his gun drawn as they descended onto an eighth-floor landing, police said after the shooting.

Meanwhile, Gurley opened the door into the seventh-floor landing after giving up his wait for an elevator. Liang was about 3m from Gurley when, without a word and apparently by accident, he fired a shot, police said. Gurley made it down two flights of stairs before collapsing. He was taken to a hospital where he later died.

Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson said he would convene a grand jury to investigate, and the results came back less than three months after the shooting, about the time it takes grand juries to consider other criminal cases.

Grand juries consider only whether there's probable cause to bring criminal charges, not whether there's evidence to merit conviction. The proceedings are closed to the public.

Even before the shooting, the New York police department had been changing how it assigns and trains new officers. Under former commissioner Raymond Kelly, the NYPD assigned rookie officers as reinforcements in parts of the city that have seen increases in crime.

Under William Bratton, new officers are no longer funnelled into high-crime precincts as extra manpower, but instead are assigned mentors who are more experienced officers and rotate through different jobs at precincts. Bratton has said the retooling process is taking time but is moving forward.

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