By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York City officer shot and killed an unarmed man in a dimly lit stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, in what may have been an accidental discharge of his weapon, the police commissioner said on Friday.
Akai Gurley, 28, was shot once in the chest and killed at about 11:00 p.m. EST (1600 GMT) on Thursday, Commissioner Bill Bratton said at a news conference.
"What happened last night was a very unfortunate tragedy," Bratton said, adding that the deceased appeared to be "a total innocent," based on a preliminary investigation.
"It appears to be an accidental discharge with no intention to strike anybody at this time," Bratton said.
Whether the shot was fired accidentally or deliberately is of significance due to heightened sensitivities in New York and across the country over the use of excessive force by police officers.
The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office and the NYPD Internal Affairs division were investigating the incident.
Officer Peter Liang, 27, and his partner, both rookies, encountered the man at the Louis H. Pink Houses in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Bratton said. The partner was not identified.
The uniformed officer, who carried a lit flashlight and unholstered his gun as he entered the stairwell, was descending from an eighth-floor landing when Gurley and a female companion entered at the seventh floor, the police said.
The officer's weapon discharged a single shot, which struck Gurley in the chest, police said. Gurley was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Police have not identified the woman, who was not injured.
Bratton said Gurley, who did not live in the so-called Pink Houses, is the father of a 2-year-old child.
The shooting comes just months after an unarmed black man died after being placed in a banned chokehold by officers who were attempting to arrest him for selling cigarettes on the street in the New York borough of Staten Island.
The incident touched off protests over the alleged mistreatment of minorities by New York City police, and fueled a national debate on police violence.
It was one of a series of explosive confrontations between police and unarmed suspects, including the August shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white officer. A grand jury is expected to decide as early as Friday whether to charge the officer in Brown's death.
(Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Trott and Bernadette Baum)