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Fatal police shooting of Red Hook man echoes Gowanus tragedy

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The fatal shooting of a Red Hook man by a rookie cop on Nov. 20 could have been prevented, said the father of the victim of a similar shooting that took place in Gowanus in 1994.

Officer Peter Liang shot and killed Akai Gurley in a dark stairwell of the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York at 11:15 pm on Nov. 20, police said. Liang and another cop entered the stairwell on the eight floor with weapons unholstered and, when Gurley came in on the seventh floor, Liang fired once, hitting him in the chest, an NYPD spokeswoman said. For one dad, the death, which police commissioner Bill Bratton called an “unfortunate accident,” kicked up memories of his own son’s demise at the hands of a police officer in a public housing stairwell.

“My son wasn’t committing no crime,” said Nicholas Heyward, Sr, calling for prosecutors to indict Liang. “These incidents aren’t tragedies, they are murders. The police are killing us.”

Nicholas Heyward, Jr. was 13 on Sept. 27, 1994, when an officer came upon him playing cops and robbers in the Gowanus Houses building where he lived. Heyward was holding a toy rifle. Friends reported hearing him say “We’re playing! We’re playing!” before the gunfire that took his life. Heyward, Sr. said that the toy did not look like an actual weapon.

In the aftermath, Heyward, Sr. called for the cop responsible to be prosecuted, but then-District Attorney Charles Hynes chose not to prosecute. At a press conference called last week in response to Gurley’s death, Heyward reiterated the demand that police stop assigning rookie officers to do so-called “vertical patrols” in public housing developments, which officers were doing when both killings occurred. He also restated his opposition to police patrolling with their weapons drawn, as they were doing in both instances.

In 2004, between Gurley’s and Heyward’s death, an officer fatally shot Timothy Stansbury, Jr. at the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, under remarkably similar circumstances. At the time, then-police chief Ray Kelly said he would review the protocol for vertical patrols, and Borough President Adams, then a police lieutenant, called for an end to guns-out stairwell sweeps.

Protocol then allowed for officer discretion in choosing to pull out a pistol, and it still does, Bratton told the Times in the wake of the Gurley shooting.

That is not okay, and inexperience and nervousness do not excuse Liang’s behavior, Heyward said.

“This officer should be brought up on charges of criminally neglect homicide,” Heyward said. “There is no reason to shoot into the darkness. He had no idea what he was shooting at.”

A grand jury declined to bring the same charge against Officer Richard Neri, who shot Stansbury dead.

The most recent death came days before a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Ferguson cop Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teen Michael Brown, sparking protests nationwide, including a massive, traffic-stopping march down Flatbush Avenue.

It was against the backdrop of the looming Ferguson decision that firebrand Assemblyman Charles Barron (D–East New York) organized a protest outside of the 75th Precinct station house and a press conference in front of the District Attorney’s Office. Barron, in calling for Liang’s prosecution, pointed out that Bratton was police commissioner back when Heyward died.

“Bratton is here to protect killer cops,” Barron said. “This was not an accident, it was a crime.”

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhurowitz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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