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Report: NYPD officer indicted for killing unarmed Akai Gurley in Brooklyn stairwell

  1. A grand jury indicted New York City police officer Peter Liang for the shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old black man, the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press reported.
  2. Liang, a 27-year-old rookie cop, pleaded not guilty to six charges, including manslaughter.
  3. Liang shot Gurley at a Brooklyn housing project, while holding a gun in the same hand that he used to open a door.
  4. The indictment comes months after grand juries decided not to file charges for the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

Police claim the shooting was an accident

Akai Gurley funeral

A protester holds a sign at the funeral of Akai Gurley. (Kena Betancur / Getty Images News)

Liang shot Gurley on November 20 in what police claim was an accident, the New York Times reported. Gurley was reportedly walking with his girlfriend down a stairwell at a Brooklyn housing project when the gun went off and the bullet — possibly ricocheting — struck him in the chest and killed him.

Within hours of the shooting, the New York City Police Department admitted to the error. They said Liang accidentally fired off the gun while trying to open the door with the same hand that was holding the firearm.

The day after the shooting, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton visited Gurley's family to apologize.

Liang surrendered to police the day after the grand jury decision, the Wall Street Journal reported. He pleaded not guilty to six charges: second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, second-degree assault, and two counts of official misconduct.

Gurley's death became part of a national controversy

Gurley's death embodies what many activists criticize as racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system.

Black Americans are disproportionately likely to be stopped, arrested, and killed by police, according to the available, limited FBI data. These racial disparities remain even in situations where a shooting victim wasn't attacking anyone else. Some of these victims were instead killed while allegedly fleeing, committing a felony, or resisting arrest.

There were several high-profile police killings in 2014 involving black men and boys. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in a highly contentious shooting that sparked nationwide protests. In Ohio, 22-year-old John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice were both killed after police mistook toy guns they were carrying for actual weapons. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

Shaun King, an activist who's been involved with the protest movement that began in Ferguson, called the indictment a "little progress." But he suggested the "fight is not over" until Liang is found guilty.

How grand juries work

jury box

A view of the jury box in a courtroom. (Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

During grand jury proceedings, jurors are presented with evidence and asked to decide whether or not someone should be charged with a crime. If they choose to indict, the case goes to court. If they don't, the case effectively dies.

Grand jury proceedings are typically secret. Participants are supposed to stay quiet about the hearings, even after a decision is reached. Leaks during the hearings are grounds for restarting the entire process.

The prosecutor has almost complete control as to what evidence the grand jury sees and hears. Since prosecutors have so much control over the evidence, getting an indictment is generally perceived as easy.

Grand juries rarely indict police officers

Liang's indictment is a rare event in the justice system. Grand juries rarely indict police officers, as Vox's Amanda Taub previously explained:

[I]t's the result of systemic biases in favor of police officers. As David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-authored the book Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, explained in an interview, juries have "a tendency to believe a police officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility."

That means that "when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite." The prosecutor's case needs to be very strong to convince a jury that an officer's behavior was egregious enough to be worthy of criminal punishment. Ordinary defendants, by contrast, enjoy no such advantage.

A key question: When is a cop allowed to kill a civilian?

Ferguson protests

A protester holds his hands up in front of police in Ferguson, Missouri. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News)

Two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s, Tennessee vs. Garner and Graham v. Connor, set the legal framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor who studies use of force, told Vox's Dara Lind. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect's committed a serious violent felony.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger explained, comes from Tennessee vs. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."

What matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.

The key to both of the legal standards — defense-of-life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who survived his encounter with police officers, but who was treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broke his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' treatment of him had been justified, but it said the officers couldn't justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.

What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" said Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies.