Akai Gurley had big plans for Thanksgiving. The 28-year-old was going to surprise his mother in Florida, heading down from New York City on the Chinatown bus with his fiancé and their two kids. He wanted to finally introduce her to his 2-year-old daughter, Akaila.
When he was a kid, his family would jokingly call him Girly-Gurley when he took too long getting ready. “He liked to look good, but when it came to his mom, he liked to look real good,” said Hertencia Petersen, his aunt. So the night before his Florida trip, on the evening of Nov. 20, 2014, Gurley went to visit his friend and former neighbor, Melissa Butler, to get his hair done.
Butler lived on the seventh floor of an eight-story apartment building in the Pink Houses, one of the many sprawling projects in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. East New York is 50% black and nearly 90% of residents are people of color; a third live below the poverty line. The 24 brick buildings make up what’s been called the most dangerous projects in New York. They aren’t named after the color, but for housing reformer Louis H. Pink; the only pink is a small, bright sign welcoming visitors to the complex with the words “a wonderful community” printed beneath a simple rendering of an urban skyline.
Gurley and Butler hung out; she braided his hair. Around 11 p.m., the two decided to go out. After waiting several minutes for the often broken elevator, they headed to the stairs. (Butler, who was initially reported to be Gurley’s girlfriend, declined to comment for this story; her account is drawn from court documents.)
One floor up, rookie NYPD cop Peter Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, were checking the eighth-floor hallway of the building. The two were on a vertical patrol — a long-standing practice in which officers sweep a housing project from top to bottom through the hallways and stairwells looking for crime and loiterers, stopping and questioning the people they encounter. Landau, who traded his testimony for immunity, told investigators he took out his flashlight and shined it through the window of the door leading from hallway to the stairwell. But the lights were out; the officers couldn’t see anything. According to Landau, Liang took out his own flashlight, drew his Glock pistol, pointed it directly in front of him, and entered the stairwell.
Butler heard a gunshot; she saw a light. She started running down the stairs. Gurley was right behind her. But the bullet had already torn through his body, fractured his third rib, nicked his sternum, and pierced both his heart and diaphragm, the medical examiner would later conclude.
Landau told prosecutors he heard footsteps running down the stairs immediately after the shot was fired. He said neither he nor Liang called to report an accidental discharge or alert their sergeant; instead, Liang repeated over and over again that he would be fired. Rae Downes Koshetz, Liang’s lawyer, told BuzzFeed News that “for several minutes after the accidental discharge neither of these two officers were aware that anybody had been hit.”
Two floors down Gurley collapsed onto the concrete floor. Butler turned; she saw the blood. His hair was freshly braided and his chest bled red. The halogen light hummed above them. Meanwhile, Landau recalled, he and Liang stood outside of the stairwell, arguing over who should call the sergeant and whose cell phone they should use. Another one of Liang’s attorneys, Robert B. Brown, disputes the notion that the two officers argued extensively. He told BuzzFeed News that the officers were back in the stairwell much sooner than the prosecution has suggested.
Gurley was breathing, but unable to talk. Butler ran for help, banging on a neighbor’s door, leaving bloody smears. The neighbor called 911 and followed Butler to the stairwell. Butler applied pressure to Gurley’s chest with the neighbor’s towel, tears streaming down her face, mixing with his blood. According to Landau’s testimony, the two officers re-entered the stairwell to see what had happened. Liang followed Landau this time. They heard a grunting noise coming from below, and followed the sound down the stairs to find Gurley splayed and Butler kneeling over him, sobbing.
According to Butler, the neighbor, and Landau, neither officer provided medical care to Gurley, though both were required to. Suddenly, Butler screamed, “He’s not breathing.” Neither officer performed CPR, though both were trained. Liang’s attorney Brown confirmed that his client did not provide medical care: “That’s absolutely true,” he said, adding, “My client was on the floor crying.”
Butler tried to do CPR, but she had no training and had never done it before. Instructions filtered from the 911 operator to the neighbor, then to Butler. Butler tipped his head back, she pinched his nose, she gave her breath to him.
The two officers walked around his body, past Butler, and continued down to the fourth-floor landing, according to the statement of facts produced by the Brooklyn district attorney. “Hurry up and call,” Landau recalls saying. “Hurry up and call.” At 11:19 and 46 seconds, Liang got on his police radio and reported “Pink House, Post One.” It’s not clear how long it had been since he shot Gurley: Liang’s attorneys suggest it had been seven minutes; the prosecution has proffered a longer timeline. Liang made four more radio calls in the next two minutes, but he didn’t mention that he’d struck anyone, according to the radio records produced in the statement of facts. (Liang’s attorney Brown said, “Five got recorded — that’s not necessarily how many were made.”)
Three other officers arrived. On the fourth floor they found Officers Liang and Landau. Liang said, “I shot him accidentally,” then pointed to the fifth-floor landing. Officer Salvatore Tramantana took over CPR from Butler. According to the statement of facts produced by Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Tramantana was the first police officer to assist Gurley that night.
Two minutes later, Lt. Vitaly Zelekov radioed the police dispatcher to “rush the bus” — police parlance for “hurry the ambulance.” According to the DA document, he was the first officer to order an ambulance to the Pink Houses that night. In the next 30 seconds, he radioed in twice more, urging the emergency response team to hurry up.
Meanwhile, Tramantana was performing CPR. He tried to take Gurley’s pulse, but he couldn’t find one. Officer Andre Fernandez took over CPR, performing it until an EMS operator arrived. “Stay with me,” Fernandez screamed. “Come on. Stay with me.” Gurley was nonresponsive.
At 11:55 p.m. Akai Kareem Gurley was pronounced dead at Brookdale Hospital.
In the year since Gurley’s death, his name has been chanted in New York and carried on posters across the country: another innocent black person gunned down by cops in a constellation of violence that stretches from Staten Island, New York, to Oakland, California. But Gurley’s case is unique, too. He’s the third young, unarmed, black man to be killed in public housing stairwells by a police officer in just as many decades.
As Peter Liang goes on trial for manslaughter this month, Gurley’s name is making headlines again. But until now, we have known so little about Gurley himself. To understand Gurley’s tragic death, it’s essential to understand not just what it is to die in East New York, but what it’s like to live there. More than a statistic, he was a father, a son, a fiancé, a friend. Gurley was known for his slightly strange, tongue-wagging laugh, his loyalty to those he cared for, and his devotion to both his daughter and his fiancé’s, whom he treated like his own. Drawing from exclusive interviews with family, extensive visits to his friends in East New York, court records, letters, and Gurley’s own words, his life is rendered in full color.
Gurley’s name is making headlines again. But until now, we have known so little about the man himself.
On Nov. 12, 1986, Akai Kareem Gurley was born on the island of St. Thomas. His mother, Sylvia, let his father, David Gurley, pick the name: Akai, for a Japanese stereo company that made his favorite speakers, and Kareem, after the Laker. Three months after his birth, Gurley flew with his parents and two older brothers to the U.S. mainland.
They stayed with Sylvia’s sister, Hertencia, in the Bronx; then, when they could afford it, they moved to Brooklyn, living in and out of public housing. As a small child, Gurley was quiet to the point of concern. “Once, his teacher thought there might be something wrong with him,” his mother told me, “but in elementary school, the real Akai came out. Laughing, joking. Lots of fun.” When he was 6, his parents split up. He saw his father occasionally, then rarely, then not at all. “When he was 10 he came to me and said, ‘Mommy, where’s my daddy?’” Sylvia said, adding, “I told him, ‘I don’t know, Akai, but I’ll help you look for him.’” They searched online and in phone books, and called friends of friends. Gurley was obsessed with finding him, but David could not be found. “After a while, he said, ‘Mommy, my daddy is in prison or he’s dead.’” And so they went through prison databases. “When nothing came up, Akai assumed his father was dead.”
Gurley inherited his mother’s fastidiousness. After Gurley’s death, his fiancé, Kimberly Ballinger, showed Sylvia his closet, where clothes were organized by color and each pair of shoes was in its original box, just like in her own closet. As a kid, Gurley loved fashion and dreamed of becoming a rapper; he carried a karaoke machine from room to room, practicing.
Sylvia eventually gave birth to a daughter, Akisha. In pictures from the time, 9-year-old Gurley carries his toddling sister around on his shoulders, smiling triumphantly. A few years later, Sylvia remarried, and when Gurley was 13, the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida. The quiet was a big adjustment. Sylvia and her husband, Kenneth Palmer, used to drive the whole family back to New York for a weekend every month, just for a taste of it. They even moved back briefly, but returned to Jacksonville because the winters in New York were just too cold. Sylvia and Kenneth had two sons, Rashawn and Malachi, and a daughter, Faith, who died as a baby. As the oldest son living at home, Gurley stepped up, offering emotional support as the family grieved.
Around 17, he moved back to New York, this time on his own. Friends and family say that he struggled. He was a high school dropout and had little support. But as a child, he earned the nickname Grasshopper, constantly moving from one moneymaking scheme to another. He had a mind for math. With a baby face, a friendly demeanor, and a wide smile, the boy could sell. He sold lemonade, cold bottled water outside of school, and, when the family relocated to Florida,convenience. “First week there, he came up to me with a big smile and said, ‘Pops?’” his stepfather recalled. “‘Pops, lemme borrow your lawnmower for a minute.’ He came back an hour later and had deals to mow everyone’s yard on the block.”
In New York, he sold weed and crack cocaine. He was always a sharp dresser, and the money he earned allowed him to buy the sneakers and snapbacks he liked. Independently, multiple people interviewed said “Akai would give you his last.” At one point, Gurley crashed for a few months with his relative Raheem Kincaid, who lived with his wife and their kids. “One time we couldn’t make ends meet before we got food stamps again,” Kincaid told me, “I asked to borrow a little money just to get us by. Instead, he went out and bought enough food to fill all the cabinets. That’s the kinda guy he was.”
In 2006, at 19, Gurley was arrested on three separate occasions for dealing. (The NYPD declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.) In 2010, he was arrested again and subsequently served jail time. In the precinct’s holding cell he met Raymond “Gizz” Smith. Their court dates ended up on the same day, and Gurley waited for Gizz and Gizz’s friend David “YungStar” Walker outside. They exchanged numbers. “He actually came through, by himself. That was weird to me,” Gizz said, “I coulda been any dude. I coulda been trying to do something to him.” But he wasn’t, and Gurley soon joined the Annex Krew, a group of young men who promised to have one another’s backs no matter what.
Like most members of the Krew, YungStar grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, and came of age surrounded by violence. “My father used to say ‘Watch yourself’ every day before school,” YungStar told me. Other kids jumped him in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. At 13, Deshawn “Redd” Johnson said he witnessed his first gang shoot-out and had his first police interaction. “They slammed me up, searched me. I was like, ‘Yo, I’m only in junior high school,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘You didn’t even read me my rights.’ The cop dead looked at me and told me, ‘You watch too much TV.’” Every Krew member had a similar story.
Gizz said that he and YungStar tested Gurley at first. “We told him, ‘Listen, you wanna be around us, you gotta throw on the boxing gloves.’ We always bring out boxing gloves,” he said, adding, “Kid knew how to fight. I wanted him around.” It was that simple. But Gurley quickly proved himself as something more than a good right hook. They called him Bless.
Bless was fiercely protective, but not in such a way that he became a liability; he wasn’t going to drag the whole Krew into an unnecessary and possibly dangerous fight. All of his friends praised his loyalty, saying it went beyond what you’d expect.
Around 2010, Gurley met Kimberly Ballinger, chatting her up on the sidewalk. The couple fell in love and he moved into her apartment in the Pink Houses. He was sweet, playful, and eager to spoil Kamiya, Ballinger’s 1-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. “I’d say ‘no’ and he’d say ‘yes,’” Ballinger remembered. Two years later, Ballinger got pregnant again. Gurley was beyond excited. He texted his sister, Akisha; told Gizz “You’re gonna be an uncle!”; and counted down the months. The baby, Akaila, was born with her father’s big forehead; he called her “My Little Twin” and took to spoiling her, too.
According to multiple members of the Krew, Bless was dealing at Pink Houses in 2013 when he caught the attention of the guys running the drug trade there. The men approached him and laid down a condition — either you deal with us, or you don’t deal here. They jumped him, pistol-whipping him in the face and splitting his ear. He showed up at Gizz’s house, crying.
“I told him, ‘You gotta fall back, [get a public housing] transfer,” Gizz said. “We can’t hit those dudes ’cause they’ll come right to your door.’” But Bless told Gizz right then it wouldn’t be possible, that he had to feed his daughter. Akaila was just a baby. So Gizz offered another suggestion. “I was like, ‘You want me to come over there?’ He said no ’cause he knew if I was coming, I wasn’t coming over there to play.” Bless didn’t want anyone getting hurt, so members of the Krew suggested he stop dealing for a while. But Bless didn’t stop. Soon after, the other group dealing at Pink Houses called in a fake order, and when Bless showed up at the apartment, they beat him up.
According to members of the Krew, the conflict didn’t intensify further, but Bless’s problems did. A few weeks later, he was arrested for dealing.
Akai Gurley served two consecutive eight-month bids for two possession charges; 16 of the last 18 months of his life were spent on Rikers Island. Police records show that Gurley was arrested on Feb. 16, 2013, for two counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance (cocaine) and one count of criminal possession of the drug during a typical buy-and-bust operation where cops work to catch dealers in the act. In a letter to the judge overseeing his case, Gurley upheld his innocence.
According to Gurley, on Feb. 16, NYPD officers stated he fit the description for a robbery; they brought him to the 73rd Precinct, placed him in a lineup, and then told him he wasn’t the right guy and that he’d be released in 10 minutes. “Ten minute[s] turned into four hours,” he wrote. “[I] got fingerprinted as I ask the officer what am I being charge[d] with he stated direct sale to a[n] undercover officer.” Gurley wrote he was released on recognizance and the DA later offered a reduced charge: disorderly conduct. Gurley declined the offer. On June 5, his court-appointed lawyer called and left a message saying that if he didn’t want to take the disorderly conduct charge, then the DA wanted to go to the grand jury the following day.
When that day came, Gurley wrote, “I was headed over two blocks to pick up my daughter out of day care. I didn’t make it ’cause I was ambushed by three undercover officers. One of them stated ‘Do you wanna do a bid or go home tomorrow? Where is the drugs?’ He placed me in handcuffs and walked me outside the pharmacy. As my back is against the window of the pharmacy, my eyes dwell on the screaming crowd of people that was in front of me as the officers unlawfully searched me in public…” He said they found $40 in his pocket and a Galaxy 3 cell phone (“Nice phone,” Gurley alleged that one cop said, before dropping it, causing the screen to crack. “Oops,” the officer added.) He said he was taken, again, to the 73rd Precinct.
To be sure, Gurley’s letter was written in an attempt to sway the judge overseeing his case. Still, it was not the first time Detective Peter Hoeflinger, the narcotics officer who arrested Gurley in February, faced such accusations. Hoeflinger has had 12 civil rights cases filed against him in the past five years, accusing him of falsely arresting and imprisoning individuals, using unreasonable and excessive force, and conspiring with other officers to create fake drug charges. The city has paid out numerous five-figure settlements on his behalf.
Additionally, Fritz Glemaud, the sergeant who oversaw Gurley’s first 2013 arrest, has been named in at least 21 lawsuits alleging civil rights violations; the city has paid around $500,000 in settlements. Zoltan Dobrossy, the other officer present during Gurley’s February arrest, was Hoeflinger’s co-defendant in a civil rights violation case. Rashan Lacoste, the officer who entered information on Gurley’s case into the computer, was named twice as Hoeflinger’s co-defendant in civil rights violation cases.
After he was sentenced, Gurley continued to advocate for himself from behind bars. According to documents provided to BuzzFeed News by his fiancé, Kimberly Ballinger, Gurley filed 49 inmate grievance forms about the jail’s notoriously horrible conditions. Ballinger said that Gurley came home with all the photocopies; she said they were given to him as proof of complaint after he turned them in. (The forms include the disclaimer “IGRP must provide a copy of this form to the inmate as a record of receipt.”) According to the Department of Corrections, Akai Gurley filed only one complaint — about being overcharged on the phone — while at Rikers.
The complaints Gurley wrote were not hastily dashed off. He got 51 other inmates to sign a complaint about a bug infestation, another 54 to sign a complaint about asbestos, and 35 to sign one about lack of heat and hot water in the showers in November. (The other inmates wrote their names in print, signed, and provided their NYSID numbers.) Many of his complaints included long-winded letters describing the conditions in minute detail, as well as questions (“why is my money being held on for so long until loaded into my account?”) and requests (“terminate spoil food being sold”).
Of the showers filled with bugs: “I always wear my shower shoes, but what if one of them gets in my toenail? What then?” Of being denied medical treatment for spider bites that led to an allergic reaction: “My lip being swollen is a major imbarrassment to me … officers and inmates are looking at me like I have a contagious disease.” And, after officers laughed at him: “I rush to my dorm made my way to my bed and just dropped my face in my pillow and began to shed tears.”
“I will never be away from Akaila that long ever again. My baby twin deserve more than just an hour visit once a week with her father.”
He continued to file complaints but felt they were being ignored. Almost halfway through his sentence, on Jan. 25, 2014, he wrote, “There has been a lot of grievances placed in the grievance box by from me and I don’t think it [is] fair for me to not ever get called down to speak with IGRP. I send a couple copies to the warden and it still have not been no answer from Anyone. It has been clear to me that no one cares.” Gurley went on to suggest that not only were his complaints being overlooked, but also that guards were punishing him for filing them with everything from fabricated infractions to excessive force. In one document, he wrote that an officer wrote him up while saying, “I heard about you Akai Gurley, you’re the person that wrote a lot of grievances, I’m gonna take care of you.”
Gurley spent most of his time at Rikers working out or in his bed, reading and writing. He liked the urban fiction of K’wan Foye. In a letter to Ballinger, he recommended Still Hood. “Had me laughing in the beginning. In the middle had me mad — almost ending had me tearing [up] — But at the very end had me making noise like I was watching a game and my team was winning.” In letters, he called her “my love,” “bey,” “my major heart,” “my life,” and, often, a teasing nickname: “big head.” On Sept. 27 he wrote, “Wassup luv. How is work going? Just wanna start of an say I am so proud of you.” He cautioned her be careful, told her to “apply pride in what you do and how you achieve it,” and closed with lyrics from Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” promising he would be back soon. In various letters, he asked about the girls, “Princess Miya and My Twin,” and reflected on his circumstances.
“Justice of law is never fair, hold on cause my freedom with y’all is near,” he wrote in a letter dated Nov. 12, 2013, at 4:30 a.m. “My baby girl is growing up an I’m missing major parts of her life,” he wrote, promising, “I will never be away from Akaila that long ever again. My baby twin deserve more than just an hour visit once a week with her father.” He was looking forward to life after Rikers and creating better opportunities for his daughters. “I don’t never want them 2 experience the shoes I walked in 27 years of my life now. (It’s not cool) Our girls are 2 smart for the gutter they deserve better than what we both been through.”
When he was released in October 2014, Gurley vowed never to return. Redd and Gurley spoke frequently after his release. They were the only two members of the Krew with kids. According to Redd, “After he got home, Bless was like, ‘I’m not going back no more. It’s time to make something happen, we gotta do this rapping thing, we gotta do a clothing line.’ We were moving on to bigger and better things. He wanted to leave the streets alone and all that.”
Akai Gurley was not the first unarmed, black New Yorker to be killed in a housing project. In September 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. and his friends were playing cops and robbers with plastic toy guns in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Houses. Brian George, 23, a black housing cop who was investigating reported gunshots nearby, came upon the boys suddenly. According to his friends, Heyward said, ‘We’re playing!’” George fatally shot Heyward in the stomach.
After Heyward’s death, there was no indictment, no charges; the city later settled a civil suit with the family for an undisclosed amount. “We are not trying to establish blame, it was an incident that happened, period,” Joseph Leake, chief of the housing police, told the New York Times, adding, “I would say it was prudent to unholster my weapon if I was on patrol approaching that roof.” Heyward’s family was devastated; his friends were traumatized. “I slept with my grandparents for about three weeks straight,” recalled Kharey “Bubba” Wood, one of the boys who was there. His memories of the night still vivid two decades later. “It changed my outlook forever on the police.”
Beyond the Brooklyn park renamed after him in 2001, Heyward’s name fell out of the public spotlight until 2004, when 19-year-old high school student Timothy Stansbury Jr. was killed on the roof of a Brooklyn housing project. Richard S. Neri Jr., a white NYPD officer, and his partner were patrolling the project with their guns out. Neri told investigators that around 1 a.m. his partner pulled the door to the stairway open just as Stansbury was pushing it from the other side. (Stansbury’s two friends who witnessed the shooting told law enforcement officials that Stansbury hadn’t yet touched the door.) Neri fired, shooting Stansbury in the chest. Stansbury staggered down five flights of stairs, ultimately collapsing in the lobby.
“This is a tragic incident that compels us to take an in-depth look at our tactics and training, both for new and veteran officers,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said at the time. A grand jury convened and declined to indict the white cop with 11 years of experience on any charges. (On the stand, Neri said he had no recollection of raising his gun and firing it.) The city agreed to pay Stansbury’s family a $2 million settlement and Neri was permanently stripped of his gun and given a 30-day, unpaid suspension by the NYPD. But he returned to the force and, as of 2010, he was still working for the NYPD, earning an annual salary of $76,488.
“The last time public housing saw dedicated funding from the state was in 1998, when I was in elementary school,” said New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres. An openly gay college dropout, Torres became New York’s youngest council member when he was elected in 2014 at age 25. He grew up in the projects in the Bronx, so improving the city’s public housing is a deeply personal mission.
When Torres worked under the head of the New York City Housing Authority, he went door to door in the projects, asking residents to show him the leaking ceilings, molding walls, and broken heaters and windows. Torres took pictures, texting them to his boss with the caption: “Fix this, or I’m e-mailing this picture to the Daily News.” In person, he laughed when I brought up that tactic; he’s bright-eyed and warm, easy to talk to but quick to lay it down. “Public housing is literally a structure of racism,” he said. “You have a historically black and brown community in squalid conditions with signs of underinvestment everywhere.”
“Public housing is literally a structure of racism.”
In the past 15 years, federal financing for New York public housing has shrunk dramatically, from $419 million in 2001 to $294 million in 2014. Almost concurrently, the broken windows theory has been implemented to improve quality of life in public housing. First introduced in The Atlantic in 1982, “broken windows” posits that small civic disturbances — littering, public drinking, vandalism — create a sense of unlawfulness and pave the way for larger crimes. Accordingly, William “Bill” Bratton (then on his first stint as New York’s police commissioner) and other followers of the theory have mandated the pursuit of low-level, quality-of-life offenses.
But even before broken windows, public housing tenants were policed for minor of infractions. Until the mid-’90s, public housing had its own police force; a 1995 merger folded the NYCHA force into the NYPD. In 1958, a NYCHA report argued that while the NYPD might not be “concerned with the fact that children play in our halls; write on walls in crayon; ride bicycles on our sidewalks and pick leaves from the shrubbery,” the housing police should be concerned with more “serious” crimes. The first vertical patrols in NYCHA buildings took place in the ’60s and were carried out by housing cops.
On vertical patrols, officers use trespassing statutes (which were intended to prevent individuals with felony drug convictions from entering public housing) to detain and question whomever they come across. Public housing residents report being stopped and searched or made to provide ID for things like “standing in the hallway,” “sitting in front of my house,” “riding a bike,” or “laughing and dancing.”
Between 2002 and 2006, police misconduct complaints filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board increased 66%; excessive force complaints increased 77%. In 2008, a New York Lawyers for the Public Interest survey found that nearly 25% of public housing residents surveyed had been stopped more than 20 times in the past year. Another 19% reported being stopped between 10 and 20 times in the previous year, and an additional 16% reported being subjected to between 5 and 10 stops. (Of residents surveyed in one housing project, 30% had been charged for trespassing…in their own building.)
It wasn’t until 2010 that the NYPD adopted new guidelines for vertical patrols, prohibiting the practice of immediately arresting people suspected of trespassing. Still, a 2014 Columbia Law Review article argued that unconstitutional stops in public housing have continued: “When it comes to being free from unreasonable searches and seizures, what a suspect has done often matters much less than the location in which he stood while doing it. Nowhere is this disparity felt more sharply than in the hallways and foyers of our nation’s public housing.”
“The story of Akai Gurley evinces the contradictions between two competing theories of broken windows,” Torres said. “Should broken windows be about policing the behavior of the window breakers or should it be about repairing the broken windows and improving the quality of the built environment of public housing?” Instead of the conventional use of broken windows, he works toward an understanding that means supporting residents by improving their environment rather than criminalizing them for the smallest offenses.
When they talk about where they live, Gurley’s friends seem exhausted by the run-down buildings and violence surrounding them. “Most people leave their houses in the daytime and they don’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder,” YungStar said. “They don’t necessarily feel worried about the people they may run into on their block. Y’know what I mean? That type of fear makes you cold. You can’t allow yourself emotion; you can’t allow yourself to feel the fear. It turns into one emotion: anger. You’re mad. All day. Every day.”
“A lot of guys I know never leave East New York,” Gizz said. “It feels different when you go to Manhattan. It’s like, Damn, everything’s so nice up here. Then you have to ask yourself why that is and you can never get an answer.”
In a 2011 poll of more than 1,000 residents in 12 developments, 37% of residents complained about public drug sales, 35% about vandalism, and 23% about gangs. But even more (40%) complained about poor lighting conditions. The darkness of the stairwell where Gurley was shot has been named as a contributing factor in his death. At Pink Houses, a supervisor had requested a lighting upgrade months before Gurley’s death, but it hadn’t occurred because higher-priority repairs at Pink Houses needed to be dealt with first. (It’s not clear if those were done before Gurley’s death either.) “Work doesn’t get done until someone gets killed,” resident Earl Greggs told the New York Post. Greggs lives on the third floor and heard Liang’s gun ring out. “The lights are always out, for the past three years,” another resident told the Post. “It’s like a dark tube.”
For some public housing tenants, problems like these make vertical patrols appealing. They welcome the presence of police in buildings where they fear for their safety. “You go into public housing and the elevators are broken a lot, so the stairs are used all the time,” Graham Campbell, a former NYPD officer who now lives and works in Washington, D.C., told me. “Tenants wanna know they’re safe, and having cops go through those stairwells top to bottom is how that’s assured. They feel mixed feelings, for sure. Sometimes they’re glad to see you, sometimes they’re annoyed, and sometimes they’re really pissed. But that’s the thing with cops: People never feel like you’re there when they need you.”
I asked Campbell why NYPD officers so frequently perform vertical patrols with guns out. “Vertical patrols are really one of few things you’re doing alone as a cop,” he said. “Usually, you and your partner will each take a stairwell. You’ll find robberies, drug deals going down, junkies, human feces, you name it, really. It can be frightening, for sure.” In the wake of Gurley’s death, Commissioner Bratton said the NYPD would review its policies “to see if there is anything we can learn,” while also reiterating that vertical patrols are “an essential part of policing.” (Gurley’s parents disagree; his stepfather, Kenneth Palmer, said he’d like to see vertical patrols become “extinct.”)
Reflecting on these factors, Sylvia Palmer finds herself at odds with the NYPD’s assessment of her son’s death. “It was an accident?!” Sylvia asked with disbelief. “I don’t believe this was an accident.”
I asked Torres for his take. “It depends on what you mean by accident,” he said. “If you’re referring to the behavior of the individual officer, I suspect it was accidental. But if you’re situating the story of Akai Gurley in a sociopolitical context, then it was hardly an accident. There’s nothing accidental about the disinvestment from public housing. There’s nothing accidental about over-policing public housing. Those are deliberate policy choices. So was Akai Gurley a victim of public policy choices at every level of government? The answer is yes.”
In the middle of the night on Nov. 20, the night before Gurley and Ballinger’s family trip to Florida, detectives knocked on Kimberly Ballinger’s door. They said there’d been an incident: Gurley had been killed. It was impossible to believe. She texted Gizz, Is Bless with you? I think Bless is dead. “I figured they must’ve had a fight or something,” Gizz recalled. He was at a party in East New York; Gurley was supposed to meet him. No, he’s not with me, Gizz texted back. What’s going on? The details slowly emerged; soon enough, Gurley’s picture was on the news.
Ballinger told Kamiya and Akaila. In the days to come, Akaila would ask why he didn’t pick her up from day care; Kamiya struggled to understand that he really wasn’t coming back. Akaila knew a cop had killed her dad, but not which one. “He killed my dad?” she would ask Ballinger whenever they passed one on the street. “She killed my dad?” she’d say, pointing to a female officer.
The Palmers met their grandchildren for the first time at Gurley’s funeral. (Since Gurley had helped raise Kamiya, they consider her their extended granddaughter; in their Florida home, photos of both girls are framed next to Gurley’s kindergarten diploma and pictures of him throughout his life.) “As he was being lowered into the ground, Kamiya asked if she could go with him,” his aunt, Hertencia Petersen, told me. “She just wanted to be with her daddy.”
“I couldn’t believe it then. I still can’t believe it now,” Akisha Gurley said when we met early this fall in Tampa. Nine years younger than her brother, she said they’ve always been close. But their lives were very different. As a teen, Gurley had gone to New York on his own, while she’d spent her teenage years in the quiet and more safe Jacksonville. The disparity of their experiences often came out in conversation. One afternoon he texted to see what she was up to. She responded to say she was hanging out with her boyfriend in his car. “He called me immediately,” Akisha said, “He’s going off, ‘Don’t be in no cars with guys I don’t know. I been in these streets longer than you.’ And I was laughing, like, ‘I don’t know what that has to do with me sitting in the car with my boyfriend in Florida.’”
“What broke me was when I saw he had a Wikipedia page. His whole life he wanted to be famous, he wanted to be known, and now he is, ’cause of how he died.”
We were supposed to meet at the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, but her shift was going long so she texted me an address and an hour later I pulled into the parking lot of the Hooters where she works. Her makeup was impeccable and her hair hung in long, tousled waves. “After he died, I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “All I did was read the stories online. What broke me was when I saw he had a Wikipedia page. His whole life he wanted to be famous, he wanted to be known, and now he is, ’cause of how he died.” And while Gurley had spent years searching for his father to no avail, Gurley’s father showed up at his wake. He’d been living in Brooklyn the whole time.
The next day, I drove through a torrential downpour to a small neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. The shotgun houses were mostly gray, beige, or brown. Tucked between two was a winding driveway and a two-story home, painted canary yellow. Kenneth Palmer, Akai Gurley’s stepfather, emerged from the house, waving an umbrella and walking over as I parked. “Hello, welcome,” he said, holding the umbrella over my head. We’d spoken a few times by phone, briefly; he acts as the buffer between Sylvia Palmer and the media. Palmer said he’d sit down for an interview, but he could make no promises about his wife. Then she too emerged from the canary yellow house, walking through a yard decorated with all sorts of plastic birds, stone angel statues, and dozens of strings of solar-powered Christmas lights they’d rigged up. Even the occasional cinder block was painted to match the house. Barefoot, she hugged me warmly, before both of them ushered me inside, out of the storm. Gurley’s younger siblings — two brothers and sister Grace, only 5, whom they called their “miracle baby” — said hello before being ushered upstairs.
With pictures spread before them, Kenneth and Sylvia alternated in telling stories of their son. They spoke of the quiet baby, the silly, playful child; they talked about a brother who doted on his siblings and a young man who liked to surprise everyone by showing up at the Florida bus terminal unannounced. On those visits, he’d cook his mother breakfast (pancakes, bacon, and eggs) then quickly clean the kitchen before inviting her in to eat. He’d inherited her appreciation for cleanliness, after all.
After we talked for a while, his siblings trooped back downstairs, sat near their parents, and shared their own stories about Gurley, leaning over the tape recorder to speak. “I know he was a good brother because he always played with Gracey,” 10-year-old Malachi said. “Plus, he always bought us snacks and things when he visited,” 15-year-old Rashawn said. “We both liked the same things: cool clothes, music, sneakers, stuff like that.”
I asked them what they’d want the world to know about their older brother.
Malachi: That he was a good person.
Rashawn: That he was a good brother…
Sylvia: …a good son, a good father.
Kenneth: My most favorite word for Akai is the word “peace.”
Grace picked up the photos and carried them over. “Grace?” she asked repeatedly, pointing at a chubby-cheeked baby Gurley. “That’s your brother — that’s Akai,” Kenneth corrected her gently.
His mother still speaks of him in the present tense.
Almost immediately after Gurley was shot, local and national outlets picked up the story and TV reporters stood in front of the crumbling development to ask questions about the practice of vertical patrols. Media outlets closely followed Ballinger as she identified his body, released doves with her daughters on the three-month anniversary of Gurley’s death, and filed a $50 million wrongful death suit against the city. Photographs of his funeral appeared in multiple New York papers; the New York Times’ editorial board said Gurley’s death “shows why the Police Department needs to revise its weapons policy.”
As camera crews descended, the NYCHA scrambled. Repairmen showed up to fix the broken lobby door at 2724 Linden Blvd. — where Gurley was killed — but it had been broken for so long that few tenants actually had keys. A few weeks later, many were still forced to wait outside until someone exited. One hundred and forty-three lights were fixed in Pink Houses in the immediate aftermath of Gurley’s death.
Gurley’s family and friends are eagerly awaiting the trial against Liang, which begins Jan. 21. The Palmers, Ballinger, and members of the Krew hope Liang serves time. They want to see him in handcuffs; they want to know he’s lost something too. “Maybe I would believe it was an accident if he would’ve stopped to help. Look at my child! Touch him. See if he’s still alive,” Sylvia said, her voice rising. “They left my child right there like he’s nothing, like he’s dirt, trash. My child means something. His life matters.”
When I visited Ballinger this past fall, conversation eventually turned to Officer Peter Liang. She’s skeptical about the case, but remains hopeful. “We’ll see, we’ll see,” she said, looking exhausted. “Cops get away with everything.”
Liang’s attorneys are also hopeful about their client’s chances. “It was a horrible, horrible tragedy, but this young police officer did not commit a crime,” as Koshetz,
Liang’s attorney, told BuzzFeed News, adding, “There’s no dispute that this was an accidental shooting.” No matter the outcome of the criminal case, precedent suggests that the city may settle in Ballinger’s civil one.
Following Gurley’s death, the members of the Krew reconsidered their own futures. “We still here ’cause we adapted to the way of living over here,” Radon “Rah” Jones said. “I’m definitely looking for a way to get outta here, I’ll tell you that.” Several years ago, Rah became a public school security guard, “following the money” as he put it; the job was a stepping-stone to a better-paying city job as a police officer. Like cops, Rah wears a badge and carries handcuffs, but his shirt is light blue instead of navy, and he doesn’t have a gun. “I didn’t even want to go to work,” he said, of the days following Gurley’s death. “To put that shirt on with that badge and know that they killed my friend. It was so many mixed emotions. I can’t even explain it.” He doesn’t think he’ll try to become a police officer, after all: “I wouldn’t feel comfortable changing the color of my shirt right now.”
Redd moved to Texas with his girlfriend, largely because living in East New York had made him so paranoid. There were no lessons to be learned in East New York, no way to understand the violence that carried on and on. In interviews, members of the Krew offered ways they might be able to understand Bless’s death — if he’d been known to carry a gun, if he was violent or involved in a street gang. But he wasn’t like that; in fact, he was trying to move on from the streets altogether.
The anxiety followed Redd from East New York. “When I leave my house, I gotta look around, make sure nobody’s outside, even though I don’t have no problems or nothing. Even when I’m driving here in Texas, I’m looking to see if someone’s following me. It’s something that I’m so used to. I just can’t shake it,” he said over the phone. “I tell everybody, if you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere.”
Redd has gone, some Krew members are locked up, but Gizz and YungStar and the rest are still in East New York, hanging out, chasing girls, making music. “Born here, raised here,” YungStar said, “Probably be here ’til the day I die.”
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