NYPD Shooting Death Tests de Blasio

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Photo: Spencer Platt/2014 Getty Images

It’s a chronically dangerous combination in the city’s housing projects: malfunctioning elevators and dimly lit stairways. Tenants who just want to reach their apartments safely call the cops, who climb up and down on “vertical patrols” looking for thieves and trespassers in the dark.

Late last night those volatile elements came together tragically — again. An unarmed 28-year-old man, Akai Gurley, was shot and killed as he walked with his girlfriend down a stairwell inside the Pink Houses in East New York. A rookie cop, Peter Liang, is said to have pulled the trigger. 

Early this afternoon Mayor Bill de Blasio started trying to make sure the aftermath isn’t equally volatile. He was in the Bronx to announce a job-training program but answered multiple questions about the shooting, using the same soothing voice he’d deployed in the hours after New York’s first Ebola patient was diagnosed. “This is a tragic situation,” de Blasio said. “That’s the bottom line … We lost a life today, and I feel very humanly about that. But it does appear to be a tragic accident.”

Moments after the mayor finished, his police commissioner appeared downtown. Bill Bratton provided a few more clinical details — the NYPD had recently increased patrols in response to an uptick in crime, including two homicides, in the Pink Houses, and the “shooting officer” had entered the hallway from the roof with his gun drawn. But Bratton’s tone, and many of his words, carefully echoed those of his boss. Both men recognized how easy it would be to inflame a bad situation. “The deceased is a total innocent who was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type,” Bratton said solemnly and emphatically. “It appears to be an accidental discharge, with no intention to impact anyone. A very unfortunate tragedy.”

This episode, in some ways, is an awful repeat of a shooting in 2004, when 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury took a roof-and-stairwell shortcut to a birthday party in Bedford-Stuyvesant and was killed by a cop coming up the stairs. Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited Stansbury’s grieving family the next day and was jeered by crowds as he left. Ray Kelly, the police commissioner at the time, was blunt in quickly admitting the NYPD’s fault: “There appears to be no justification for the shooting.”

De Blasio and Bratton, interestingly, are treading somewhat more cautiously. The Gurley shooting comes at a fraught moment. One of the mayor’s highest priorities is improving the relationship between cops and minority New Yorkers, and liberal activists have been complaining de Blasio isn’t moving fast enough. At the same time, de Blasio has been fending off tabloid stories about cops complaining that the mayor counts Reverend Al Sharpton among his important advisers. Adding to the potentially inflammatory mix are the pending grand jury reports on the deaths, at the hands of police officers, of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island.

It’s not necessarily right to connect the dots and say these are all of one piece,” the mayor said this afternoon. He’s right. But that won’t stop some people from trying, whether out of raw pain and anger or out of political opportunism. Today, at least, de Blasio and Bratton found the tricky balance between sympathy and rationality.