A novice New York Police Department officer fatally shot a 28-year-old man in a Brooklyn stairwell late Thursday night in what "appears to be an accidental discharge [with] no intention to strike anybody," authorities said Friday. Police believe the victim was not engaged in any criminal activity at the time of the shooting, the commissioner said.
Just after 11 p.m. on Thursday, Officer Peter Liang and one of his colleagues conducted a foot patrol of the Louis H. Pink Houses in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. They were descending from the eighth-floor stairwell, which was unlit, when Akai Gurley and his female friend appeared a level below them, Commissioner William Bratton said during a Friday afternoon press conference.
Liang, who previously had drawn his gun and flashlight in the dimly-lit hallway, fired one shot into Gurley's chest, Bratton said. The victim was taken to Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, where he died just before midnight.
Both officers had been working on the force for less than 18 months, Bratton said.
The NYPD didn't immediately respond to msnbc's request for comment, but The New York Times reported Liang has been placed on modified assignment and was relieved of both his badge and gun.
The preliminary investigation indicates "it may have been in fact an accidental discharge," Bratton told reporters, adding that authorities believe Gurley and his friend were "innocent."
"He and the young woman he was with were just entering that hallway" to avoid a delayed elevator, Bratton said. The victim was "not engaged in any activity other than to walk down the stairwell."
When the officers noticed the lights were out, Liang drew his gun, but his partner refrained. Authorities allow officers to use their own discretion in deciding when to pull out their firearms, Bratton said. The commissioner added that it remained unclear as to what Liang and his partner heard and saw in the hallway before the bullet discharged.
"As we continue to gather the facts, the fatal shooting of this unarmed man is deeply troubling and warrants an immediate, fair and thorough investigation. Many questions must be answered, including whether, as reported, the lights in the hallway were out for a number of days, and how this tragedy actually occurred," Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said in a statement emailed to msnbc.
When an increase in violence occurs in a certain area, police authorities assign officers to monitor the surrounding locations, which was the case with the Brooklyn public housing development where the officers patrolled Thursday night.
"The reason we are there is because people in those developments want us there," Bratton said.
The incident is just one in a long string of recent tragedies in New York City and across the country that has incited tension between authorities and residents. Two NYPD officers are under criminal investigation after being caught on surveillance video pistol-whipping a teenage marijuana suspect in August. A month earlier, an NYPD officer choked Eric Garner to death after accosting him on a street corner for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island.
Police brutality also received renewed national attention in South Carolina, Ohio, Utah, and Missouri, where officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9. Residents and authorities in Ferguson are preparing for a St. Louis grand jury's decision on whether or not to indict Wilson.